Sunday, October 13, 2013

Teaching Kids to Read

Today is Sunday, October 13, 2013.

In the United States, there are very few children who have not heard of  or read The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel.   The book was published in 1957, and was written in response to a 1954 Life magazine article by John Hersey, called "Why Do Students Bog Down on First R?  A Local Committee Sheds Light on a National Problem: Reading."

Hersey wasn't the only person who criticized the Dick and Jane reading series. In 1955, In Rudolf Flesch published a book called Why Johnny Can't Read.  As well, the push for multiculturalism, and characters of other races and cultures was a reaction to the cultural homogeneity of the Dick and Jane series.

Reading has apparently been a "national problem" for a long time.  I only started school in 1957.  In his article, Hersey wrote, "In the classroom boys and girls are confronted with six books that have insipid illustrations depicting the slicked-up lives of other children. [Existing primers] features abnormally clean boys and girls.... In bookstores, anyone can buy brighter livelier books, featuring strange and wonderful animals and children who behave normally, i.e., sometimes misbehave."

That would have been the primers written by a team of authors at Scott, Foresman & Company, featuring the characters Dick, Jane, Sally, Mother, Father, Spot (the dog) and Puff (the cat) and Tim, Sally's stuffed Teddy bear.  All the characters in the stories were white, and yes, the books were rather insipid, and the kids were "abnormally clean," although they did get into some small mischief once in a while.  

The primers had a limited vocabulary on purpose, so that kids could learn to read sight words and learn to sound out other words.  The limited vocabulary did make for a pretty stilted story sometimes.   Here are some examples.

This is one of the first books in the series, and as you can see, the dialogue is not exactly natural.  On the other hand, you might try writing your own story using, say, the first twenty words in the Dolch Sight Word List, or the first thirty words in the Fry High Frequency Word List.  Good luck, and write when you get published. 

Here's another Dick-Jane-Sally book at a slightly higher level.  The story is complete in four pages, or two spreads. 

As you can see, it's definitely a product of the fifties, with Mother wearing a dress and heels, and all the little girls wearing dresses.  (Growing up in small towns in the Midwest, I wasn't allowed to wear slacks to school until my senior year of high school, which ended in the spring of 1971.)  Until that time, I always wore dresses.  We only put on slacks under our dresses for cold weather, then took off the slacks when we got to school and put them in our lockers or our book bags.  And yes, my mother did wear dresses at home - that was what it was like in the fifties!)
Nevertheless, going back to Hersey's article, he was right - the books weren't that much fun to read.  The Cat in the Hat was fun - but it was also a little confusing, because Dr. Seuss used nonsense words in his stories.  Of course, they were always words that kids could sound out, which was good for learning to sound out words, but as a teacher of English to immigrant kids, I can tell you that the English language learners never did get caught up in Dr. Seuss books, because to them, there was no difference between real English words and made-up nonsense words, so the amusement factor just wasn't there, and it was hell to try to explain the stories, with all their nonsense words.  The books were never used as primers, to my knowledge, but they did help to supplement what the schools were using.  Dr. Seuss books are still highly celebrated in American elementary schools, and Theodor Geisel's birthday (March 2) is celebrated with the Read Across America program each spring.  

In The Cat in the Hat, the boy (unnamed, but the narrator of the story) and his sister Sally are left alone while their mother goes out, and they are promptly visited by the Cat, who does all sorts of dangerous and amazing tricks, leaving a whirlwind of destruction in his path.  At one point, the cat goes outside to get a box and brings it back inside.  Then he lets out two little gremlins called Thing One and Thing Two, who are holy terrors.  The boy and his sister manage to catch the Things and get the Cat under control.  The Cat, who feels bad that he has done so much damage, cleans up the house and disappears just the second before the kids' mother walks in the door.  Which child has not had the experience of cleaning up a mess just before mom comes home?  (Or dad, or grandma.)

The Cat in the Hat was still based on mainstream white culture; the first Black, Latino, or Native American characters weren't introduced in primers until 1965.  Reading series primers have never been that great, because as I said before, it's just plain hard to write books with anything but a very simplistic story line using a limited vocabulary chosen for its "readability."  

Fortunately, kids do enjoy the stories, and the primers are not the only books they read, by a long shot.  Nowadays, a lot of schools participate in a program called "just right books," or "baggie books," where each child is issued a gallon-size ziplock bag with a label on it that can be scanned.  The librarian scans the child's label, then scans the books that he or she checks out.  Each child has several books at his own personal reading level in the bag, and the child reads them several times until the students are allowed to pick out other books.  

Given below are some student-friendly guidelines for picking out the right level book.   The point is that, in order not to get frustrated, kids should be able to read at least 94-95% of the words.  Remember that many very beginning books have only 20 words, if that, so 95% means they can only read the book by themselves if they miss one word.  More than that, and they will need to sit with an adult to read the book.  Or, they will just look at the pictures and never learn to read.  With the funding cuts in schools, there are fewer aides to read one-on-one with kids, and the kids who have the most trouble tend to come from homes where adults don't have time or the inclination to help kids read, the adults are strung out on drugs or alcohol, or the adults can't read.  And.. the home doesn't have any books or magazines.  The parents don't bother to take their kids to the library or buy books for their kids.  :-/


1 comment:

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