Whole Word Reading Method
What’s odd, is that I have always assumed that I learned to read by the phonics method. Not so!
more at: https://americacomesalive.com/2017/06/02/dick-and-jane-story-of-these-early-readers/
Gray and Sharp (for background see the thousands of articles on the Internet) came from two different educational backgrounds, but both observed that some students struggled with sounding out words.
They were among the educators who became enamored of what is known as the “whole word” or “look-say” method of reading. This method taught children to look at each word as a whole unit. These educators felt students could recognize the word “house” or “down” more easily than they could sound it out.
With this philosophy, Gray and Sharp created the Dick and Jane stories. They originally appeared as part of what was called the Elson-Gray reader published by Scott, Foresman. (William Elson had been a text book writer at Scott, Foresman since 1909.) SF was a “local” publisher in Chicagoland, where I grew up, as were many other producers of textbooks and related classroom materials. I later worked for SF as a designer of high school and college texts.
When interviewed later, Zerna Sharp described Dick and Jane as her “children” and said that she selected the names. Given Gray’s and Sharp’s backgrounds, we might assume that Sharp was the story editor, carrying out an overarching theory of learning laid out by Dr. Gray.
Dick and Jane Content
The stories featured a very limited vocabulary with clear illustrations demonstrating whatever the page was about. For example, if the word to be emphasized was “up,” the story might involve Dick launching a toy airplane into the air with Jane and Sally talking about it. “See it go up. Up up it goes.”
In the very earliest books (the Elson-Gray readers) the characters were not yet fully identified. Siblings Dick and Jane had a sister, called Baby. Baby, of course, eventually becomes Sally. Their cat, Little Mew, eventually became Puff. The dog in the stories was a terrier. Later, the dog acquired a name, Spot, and became a cocker spaniel. Tim was the well-loved Teddy bear. And of course, Mother, Father, and Grandmother, and Grandfather all appeared in some of the stories.
A typical first primer contained about 80 words. Zerna Sharp believed that children became overwhelmed by too many new words, so one new word was added only every third page. There was a lot of repetition, and a typical page might read: ”See Dick run. Run Dick run.”
The readers that were sold for classroom use came with a page-by-page teacher’s guide that listed the vocabulary for each of the textbooks. In the classroom, phonics drills of letter sounds were replaced by word flashcards. The teacher could hold up cards with “house,” “up,” “down,” or “Spot” written out, and the children practiced recognizing the word.
There were more advanced levels of Dick and Jane books written to be used through Grade 9, but the early books were the more popular. By the 1950s, it is said that almost 80 percent of primary grade classrooms used Dick and Jane.
William Gray believed that by the time a child completed second grade, students needed phonics to sound out more complex words. In the leap to teaching “whole word,” it is not clear that school systems ever got the message about teaching phonics later.
The Illustrations Were Important
Perhaps because the text is so dull, the illustrations stand out in memory. The first books were illustrated by Eleanor Campbell and Keith Ward. Campbell was said to have pored over recent Sears catalogs (also Chicago based) to put the family in clothing that was the latest fashion for the day.
Robert Childress illustrated the books of the 1950s. Richard Wiley, who went on to be a publisher, started his career as an illustrator and Wiley was the first to illustrate books with African American characters in the series (1965).
Dick and Jane in Anytown, USA
The world created for Dick and Jane was very bland. They lived in a suburban neighborhood; their house had a white picket fence, and Mother took care of the home while Father went to an office during the week and mowed the lawn on weekends. To appeal to all regions of the country, the stories are devoid of any indications of location.
The world of Dick and Jane looked just like “my world” because it actually was a depiction of suburban Chicago! Thanks to this, Dick and Jane seemed to be “real” to us and not bland or dull as the writer states. After all, to a small child, family is of paramount importance, and what child isn’t excited by their very own dog, cat or other pet? In hindsight “my world” may seem both dull, bland and even bizarre… but is the contemporary American social and physical environment a better place to raise children? No. It’s a disaster.
Maybe stable families, a lack of crime, safe neighborhoods, basic education in drug and gun-free schools, and hours and hours of free-time outdoor activities are not the “horror” that contemporary educators claim.
Maybe a “good start” in life is what all children deserve. The distortion that minority children and poor children are doomed to danger, trauma and neglect in the name of “cultural diversity” is a crime against those children.
There were few additional characters, but those who appeared were white. Zeke, the gardener, was a little different; perhaps his dark hair and slightly darker complexion was to indicate ethnicity of some type. The children loved him, but he was in a worker role. An odd comment: what’s wrong with being a “blue collar” person who works for a living?
It was a goal of many families to move to the suburbs for a better environment in which to raise a family – and many did, including minorities and immigrants. This opportunity was not “confused with” ethnic cleansing or genocide as it is today.
While the creators felt that in Dick and Jane’s world, they had created a neighborhood with which children could identify, the limited number of words each volume could use severely restricted the action. While Dick might send his toy plane up in the air, there was little opportunity for more excitement. In this repeated sentiment, we have the “seed” of American belief that 24/7 entertainment is a “good” replacement for the cruel punishment of becoming educated. What we now have is a society that generates a tsunami of low-level media distraction, but fails to educate its children.
Besides teaching reading, Dick and Jane set examples of positive contributions. They did their chores, they were helpful to other people, and they were kind to each other. Laughing at baby Sally was done in good fun. How awful!
As early as 1929, experts were raising alarm over the “whole word” or look-say reading method. Dr. Samuel T. Orton (1879-1948), a neuropathologist and expert in reading disabilities, wrote that the “whole word” sight reading method would cause problems for a large number of children. While he realized that there were children who could benefit, he wrote a paper for the Journal of Education Psychology (February 1929) where he described the “whole word” method as an obstacle to reading for the majority of students. (His paper is quoted in Chalcedon Magazine, a Christian education publication.)
But that did not slow the pace of the reform movement. Other publishers were mimicking the style, and by the 1950s, Dick and Jane books were in an astounding 80 percent of American classrooms for early education.
By the mid-1950s, the tide was finally turning. In an article in Life magazine in 1954, author John Hersey (1914-1993) sought to answer “Why Do Students Bog Down on First R?” In reporting on the issue, Hersey noted that these books were dull. How do you inspire children with insipid content? This is nonsense. Millions of Americans learned to read using every technique from “self-taught” to the most sophisticated practices. Reading was a necessary skill for functioning in an increasingly communication-knowledge based United States economy. It was a status-booster of great importance, historically reserved for elites. Today literacy is considered to an obsolete skill in the U.S.
Shortly after the Life article, Rudolf Flesch, an author and reading consultant, wrote Why Johnny Can’t Read. In the book, he condemned the “whole word” method.
These events were the underpinnings of the rise of Theodore Geisel. A former advertising illustrator, Geisel’s first book for children was published in 1937, and it was And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. But with the press covering the dullness of children’s literature, Houghton Mifflin and Random House asked him to take on a challenge: Could he write an engaging children’s primer using only 220 vocabulary words?
Indeed he could. The resulting book was The Cat in the Hat. (1957).
The book changed Theodore Geisel’s career by making him a household name, but it also changed the trajectory of children’s literature. Children’s books no longer had to be “white bread” stories, devoid of imagination. Dick and Jane was a specific teaching tool. There exists a huge body of exciting and inspiring children’s fare that has been collected over 10,000 years of human history, including tales and myths from the Stone Age to modern time, from peoples around the planet. Dr. Seuss’s work helped erode the power of the look-say reading method that was so entrenched in the schools.
More Change Needed
White suburbia was losing its luster by the early 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) outlawed “separate but equal,” and President Lyndon Johnson brought a new view to the White House in 1963. Johnson had attended a teachers college for his higher education. From 1928 to 1929, Johnson paused his studies to teach Mexican-American children at the segregated Welhausen School in La Salle County, Texas.
Johnson needed the income to pay for the rest of his education but the year gave him more than salary. He saw that most of the students couldn’t even dream of college because they were too poor. In remarks made at Southwest Texas State College in 1965 he said: “I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.
Johnson taught for a couple of more years before going into politics, and those experiences never left him. When Johnson assumed the presidency, he called for an Act of Congress to improve the education opportunities for underprivileged students.
The result was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It provided money for supplemental educational material but with a provision: The subject matter had to also be appropriate for urban schoolchildren.
As desegregation was enforced in the late 1960s, book publishers realized they needed to reflect future classrooms. Dick and Jane acquired a black family in their neighborhood in Fun with our Friends (1965), but it was really too late for Dick and Jane. The 1965 books were the last new editions of the series. Scott Foresman (no longer Scott, Foresman) moved on to publishing other materials that emphasized a multicultural world. What is still little-acknowledged is the incredible influence then, and now, of religious denominations, via school boards, over the content of educational curriculum and materials. Even in the long-gone days when I was designing textbooks, the State of Texas dictated the content of textbooks nationwide. It bought texts for the entire state of Texas: these volume purchases were so large that content had to be approved to “suit” highly religious prejudices. Rewrites of text, exclusion of “classic literature” selections and strict illustration instructions were common, due to the Texas Ed Board’s economic veto power. Needless to say, science education was slowly gutted of any idea, theory, fact or detail that offended these ultra-Christians.
Many editors and contributors who valued their professions (and this is true within the education industry itself) eventually abandoned the “battle” out of sheer stress and the futility of trying to maintain standards – a trend that has reduced the United States to the bottom of the developed nations in science and engineering education attainment.
Place in History
For many reasons, Dick and Jane earned a place in our history. Their names are synonymous with early reading books. And if you should still have any copies of a Dick and Jane book, you may be in luck. They are considered collector items.
They are so iconic that in 2003, Grosset & Dunlap re-released the original Dick and Jane primers. The publisher added a disclaimer, noting that the books are nostalgic and were not intended to be used to teach children to read.
So listen up parents! Don’t you dare try to use your old or new Dick and Jane books to teach the kids to read. It will brand you as a socially deviant parent: the Department of Family Services will place your children in foster care and book you into jail – and your mug shots will be posted on the FBI’s Most Wanted website.
They sold over 2.5 million copies of the reissue, which spawned merchandise. Mugs, refrigerator magnets, T-shirts, and carry-all bags have all been produced with the iconic imagery and catch phrases, like “See Spot run!”
Neurotypicals must reduce any and all objects and original content to marketable trinkets, because a price tag is the only value that is recognized.
Note from article writer: While my own children were learning to read, I was involved. Now that I’ve read more in depth about the learning process, I realize that word recognition was key for them in the beginning… then they needed phonics. Of course, this is what William Gray recommended, but his full message never seemed to be conveyed.
To read about another classroom reading staple from this era, read about Weekly Reader.