The Genius of "Dick and Jane"

Thank heavens I came to this country when Dick and Jane were in vogue.  Compared with what I see going on in early grade classrooms today, that Ginn series was pure genius.

Yes, the "Dolch List" was in existence back then (compiled in 1932), but someone had the wisdom to realize that these words would be deadly in terms of a starter vocabulary for teaching reading.

I've heard all the arguments about "Dick and Jane" being too "Middle Class", too boring, and the language too stilted.  Well, I lived on "the wrong side of the highway" at age 6 with other Displaced People from post WWII Europe. I was well aware that  the Readers represented the Canadian Dream - the Dream that seemed to exist in the Hydro Colony across the road where kids had flush toilets and basements, and even tricycles to ride on. Jealous as I was of  those luxuries, I didn't take it out on little sister Sally who was such a silly character and kept the fun going.

It occurs to me now that my ease with reading English came from the fact I had already been taught to read in Estonian, a truly phonetic system with only twenty-four letters.  Had I had to learn English by changing the way I pronounced my vowels, I might well have been totally at sea.  Being introduced to a few MEANINGFUL sight vocabulary words at a time, having these repeat daily while a few additional words were introduced with pictures that provided context, worked extremely well.  Consonant sounds and digraphs were taught alongside, linked to the reading vocabulary.  A holistic, complete program.  Vowel sounds were part of the Grade 2 program. (These I never really mastered until I had to teach them).  What a waste of time to teach these out of the context of word families!  (Dr. Seuss was such a clever man!)

My 60-years-ago experience is not irrelevant to the argument.  Today we have a huge influx of Chinese students who have been taught the PinYin phonetic system (as a precursor to reading Mandarin characters).  Vowels sounds in that code are pronounced very differently than in English. Why teach them to read in a way that assures confusion for many?  (Or are "educationists" simply unaware that there are other ways ...?)

I've often marveled at how things change in our education systems in Canada.  As a teacher, my impression has always been that someone "up there" suddenly decides that we are not using "this approach" anymore.  Who "they" are and why the change has been made often remains a mystery.  It was always about someone's "philosophy" - which had nothing to do with what my reality may have been in inner-city Montreal or in the back hills of Jamaica.

Luckily I was able to escape, after eleven years of being told what to do, to the Special Education field where I was generally left alone and appreciated for removing the most troublesome students.  I had a huge degree of academic freedom in this role,  and was able, finally,  to teach according to the individual needs of individual students.  In addition to producing some pretty innovative materials, I often found myself scrounging for older programs that were designed in smaller steps and respected the role of repetition in the learning process.

Let me be quick to point out that my groups often included the "very bright" as well as the "challenged".  ADHD students are notorious for their "brilliance" in specific areas, but tend to do better at acquiring skills by being anchored to a lock-step, systematic program.  The anchor provides the focus.

But I digress.

Controlled-vocabulary readers were still in use when I started teaching thirteen years later, though many other publishers had their own versions.  I first taught from the Nelson (Jack, Jill, and Sandy) series and was grateful for the teachers' guide that explained exactly what to do.  At the end of the year, there were two children who were not ready for Grade 2.  We had no Special Education classes or additional support services back in the mid-Sixties, and children who were unable to complete the program, simply repeated the year.  (I do not condone this practice now; a "re-start" program should be available to kids throughout their school career; perhaps a variety of programs - including computerized ones -  that peg the child at his comfort level and allow him to proceed at his individual pace during skill-based lessons. In place of forcing the child to fit the criteria, let the program track the child.)

Ah, another digression!

The move away from "readers" had started by the time I returned from seven years of teaching (as CUSO volunteer) in Jamaica and earning a B.Ed, there (as CIDA International Scholar).  In the Developing World I learned again the value of providing a clear teacher's guide and controlling sight-vocabulary while essential phonetics (consonant and digraph sounds) are scaffolded onto the known words. (Jamaican vernacular pronounces vowels in ways completely foreign to Standard pronunciation).  The Canadian Scholarship supervisors expressed their disappointment in my not coming up with something "more original", but, for the majority of Jamaican children, I still cannot think of a better way (well, perhaps one, but I can't seem to find an audience that is interested).  In any case, Jamaica is now introducing our Canadian "Phonics First" approach and, in twenty years or so, we shall witness the "improvement" that inspires...  

In the late 60's (with me still teaching in Jamaica), the "Programmed Learning" craze hit.  Enter the "Sullivan Programmed Reading" series.  This was perfectly in tune with current "philosophy".  It resulted in some great calypso music ("And Dan is the man in the van".)  I tried it out in Jamaica and found it deadly because of vowel pronunciation and silly, contrived vocabulary...the point of the calypso version.

Consider the inconsistencies of English vowels sounds.  The only one that is more or less consistent in its pronunciation in simple texts is the letter "a" (as in "and, at, as, after, an, about, away). I would challenge someone to find me consistency in the pronunciation of the others... (as in "end, even, her; is, it, I, night; on, over, out; up, us, put)  I realize that the words that the non- phonetic words are taught as sight vocabulary.  However, that is making the assumption that the child will NOT try to sound these out given that he has been drilled to sound each letter in isolation.  Confusion.  And it's all unnecessary.

An old series of spelling texts called "Word Family Spellers", taught vowels in the context of a list of meaningful words (night, fight, light, etc... like wise old Dr. Suess.  These were probably highly effective in bolstering reading ability in many of us.  

By the time I returned to Canada from Jamaica in the mid 70's, both "Basal Readers" and spelling texts were losing favour.  Luckily, this coincided my switch into specialized education.  My children in inner-city Montreal continued to use controlled vocabulary material which allowed them to make progress in small increments.  With a few, I tried Ashton-Warner's "conscious vocabulary" approach.  Different strokes for different folks.  Regardless of the type of reading program that a given child was using, we played a game called "Ends and Blends".  This was a word-family word game that seemed to bolster everyone's abilities.  (Except for socially and orally highly-capable Diane whose dyslexia I really did not understand; she reversed so much material that  anything in print thoroughly confused her, even though her understanding of the strategies of games was admirable.  Today I suspect she was ambidextrous...)

Over time, the only material I have found superior to the basic word-family approach is "Glass Analysis".  This starts with a simple word like "at" and adds letters to both sides to build "hat, bat, bats, chat, batter, flattering, etc.  This technique works wonders with kids and is now coming back into vogue through programs like "Words Their Way" in some locations.

How education does go around in circles!  

One can only hope that it soon comes to its senses and swings back around to a more child-friendly approach to introducing reading skills.  Not, perhaps, to the old North American backyard-based readers, but to some international theme (oceans, space, jungles, environment) with meaningful vocabulary and essential phonetics: consonant sounds, digraphs (sh, ch, th, wh, ph) woven in, followed by a good dose of word families linked to mastered vocabulary. 

Why worry about high-frequency vocabulary anyway?  By definition, those words are going to repeat constantly and are therefore the least likely to require drill.

As a veteran of many classrooms in many countries, with experience in literacy issues at all grade levels, I firmly believe we had it about right in the mid 70's when we provided a controlled-vocab approach to all, then challenged the most capable with supplementary books (which seem to have evolved into our modern leveled readers), and provided remediation for those who struggled.

A controlled vocabulary approach can reach far more students than the spit-and-sputter of what we are expecting children to do now.   Very recent research from New Zealand indicates that we are slowing the reading process down by having children sound out each letter.  (This research will no doubt be swept under the carpet or ignored because it does not suit our current practices).  The New Zealand findings suggest that children read more efficiently when "chunking" words into phonemes.  This relates closely to the "clusters" taught in Glass Analysis, to the word family approach, and to reading through syllables.

Another "old" technique that has gone out the window, is the use of phrased flash-cards.  We were trained to use phrase cards to "increase eye span" and "reading speed and fluency".  Much better to read "This is"..."my new book", than "This"..."is"..."my"..."new"..."book".   Proper grammar and syntax are also reinforced through phrase drills.

I am not suggesting that we continue with readers beyond the grade one level.  By mid grade one, a Level 1 SRA Reading-Lab can easily be introduced.  Of course, it doesn't have to be SRA, but I have yet to find a program as thorough and one that allows so individualization in one compact box .  The 70's labs tackled phonetics appropriately, taught GRAMMAR, syntax, and  vocabulary ALL within the context of a topic chosen by the child him/herself.  This is the type of program that should be in every classroom since it challenges the strongest, while allowing the weakest (or the new-comer to English) to acquire a solid set of reading skills.

Change may come more slowly now that talented writers are making money writing cute little books that appeal to many.  These need not be discarded, but could go back to being "supplementary" reading and tracked along an oral reading continuum just as is happening at present. My understanding of MRI research is that different parts of the brain are used for oral and silent reading.  We may be doing children a dis-service by concentrating only on the oral; good readers do not sound every letter and do not articulate every word; they read in "chunks".

There is ever so much to be said about what is happening in our kindergartens.  And the people who are paying for the system, the parents, have so little power.  They are expected to do the teaching of the "high-frequency" vocab through unconnected homework sheets and drill games.  If this fails, they are expected to find a tutor.

I have in front of me a list of senior kindergarten topics. Given that the system now recognizes that many will complete elementary school without a good grasp of basic numeracy and literacy skills, why on earth are topics such as "Telling time" and "Matching Analog and Digital Clocks" on the kindergarten curriculum.  This skill repeats in every grade for years to come.  Why "location in a three-by-three grid"?  Why "short vowel sounds" when they are not essential to learning to read?

Does this cramming of content into early grades have anything to do with aspiring to be competitive with China?  If so, please note that Chinese children are taught numeracy meaningfully, drilled in numeracy, and problem solve WITHOUT calculators throughout elementary school.  It's all about NUMERACY and related meaningful problem-solving in the early years.

Once the child understands number, graphing takes little time to cover in a later grade.  ALL future success in ALL areas of mathematics is based on a thorough understanding of how numbers work.  We cover far too much "fancy stuff" at a cost of skimming over critical basic skills.

In reading we ask parents to drill meaningless words like "have" and "be", and let Kumon come in to clean up our mess.  Yet, we know that parents have no time and that tutorial services are expensive.

Give teachers a break! Our curricula are burgeoning with so much material that is re-taught in ensuing grades;  teachers can hardly be expected to do a thorough job with the basics.  

Time to take a good, hard look at what we expect of teachers, what we are doing to children, and how much involvement we allow the people who are paying for the system. 

Those of us who grew up with Dick and Jane have generally become well-functioning members of society.  I often wonder about the new generation - you know, the one that is exemplified by the Tim Horton's employee who has gone from not being able to calculate change, to not being able to assemble the coins required to make the change indicated by a computer...

Our kids deserve less content and more quality.  Our parents deserve to be able to understand WHY reading is being taught in the a "spit-and-sputter" manner that may slow down "real" reading.  Our teachers deserve to have a curriculum that is manageable.

Back to basics in early grades, PLEASE!




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Comments (2)

  1. alexwhitfeld

    You guys are very amazing to discuss your studies and talent. I still remember when I was in high school I was so much irritated by the exercise books that I even attempted to run away from the school but that was so foolish of me and is also promoting the talent.

    December 23, 2016