Monday, April 02, 2007

Dick and Jane; Now We Read

A couple of people commented on my last post that they didn’t know Dick and Jane books had African American characters. I didn’t remember that either until I saw the newest issues on the store shelves. I did some reading on it today and found out that the African American family was added to the books in 1965 in the volume "Now We Read".

The books were popular in American schools between 1940 and 1970. I remember using them when I was in kindergarten and first grade. I must have stared at those pictures intensely many times because when I see them now they are as familiar as family photographs. I loved those books because I could read them and they were fun stories. I can still imagine the feel of the pages turning and recall the texture, sound and scent of the paper used to make them. After I got better at reading I remember thinking the simplicity was silly and boring. We used to make fun of them after we were confident in our reading skill.

Dick and Jane books were developed with the philosophy that kids can learn to read by mastering a growing list of sight words. The series fell out of favor in the 70s when phonics got big. The pendulum swung the other way and schools got rid of them. Some were required to throw them in the trash or even burn them.

The thing is there is a (hopefully brief) period of time when one is learning to read that this type of book is just right. I think they are good for the very beginning readers at Buddy’s level (he’s four and not in kindergarten yet). He doesn’t know enough phonics to sound out words. He is passionate about reading the print in his environment. He wants to read a real book. He has been in an intensely literate environment his whole life. He’s been read to every single day. All the people who love him spend a significant amount of time reading for information, work and pleasure. He has been drilled in the alphabet; he knows rhymes and spontaneously identifies them. He knows the power of words. He understands the language of stories. He’s been primed. When a child like this is propelled by eager motivation to read you need a fun book to put in their hands. If you can make an interesting story with 50, 100, or 200 words kids will eat it up. He is continuing to get phonemic awareness and sound-symbol correspondence lessons from me and from his daycare teachers. Decoding and phonics will develop as he continues to put that all together.

I have been teaching reading long enough to see several trends come and go. I’ve taught enough kids and adults how to read that I know the wisdom of the middle way. A little of this, a little of that, and each individual can find what they need based on their individual learning style. If one method isn’t working, try something else. Phonics, whole language, key vocabulary, you name it. Whatever lights the fire!


Dawn said...

We had a copy of When We Were Friends, which we LOVED. My sister just found it again and I was looking at it and feeling sad that there were no black kids in it so I was THRILLED to read your post yesterday! I read that book long after I was past that reading stage because I found it so comforting. There is something downright cozy about those books, as dated as they are.

Vivian Mahoney said...

My eight year old loved these books when she was learning to read.

Third Mom said...

I learned to read with Dick and Jane, back in the mid 1950s, and I have a warm spot in my memory for them. The books were not diverse then, and I'm glad to hear that they made an effort.

You are so right about trying different things. Our son was absolutely driven to read - I have a vivid memory of him at age 4 sitting on the sofa in tears with a book in his lap crying, "I want to read it!" Not long after that I came home from work one day, he ran up to me and demanded, "Mommy, call 1-800-ABCDEFG!" He had seen the Hooked on Phonics commercial, memorized the number, and with absolute confidence told me to call so I could order the program. I did, and he taught himself to read with it before kindergarten.

Our daughter, on the other hand, wanted no part of HOP. The Bob books worked for her a little better, but honestly she wasn't ready to read until she was in first grade. The right teacher did the trick, and she just took off.

We have to listen to our kids, too, they know what they're ready for!

Thanks for bringing back the old warm memory :)

wishy the writer said...

Hi! I enjoy your blog! And given your interests, you probably know, or might like to know, that today is International Children's Books Day! I posted about it on my blog today at

Happy Reading!

Mary Lee said...

I had kind of borrowed the medical profession's "Do no harm" as my catch-phrase for Teaching Beyond the Trends. But I'm liking "Whatever lights the fire," too!

ChristineMM said...

I enjoyed your post, thank you!

I learned to read in public school in 1973 and used phonics books and readers NOT Dick and Jane. But, at home my family gave me Dick and Jane books which were used and discarded textbooks from schools, some were very old.

(I know these two things as my family saved everything and a couple of years ago gave me all my old schoolwork and I see it was all phonics based. Also they gave me the old Dick and Jane books and now I own them! As an adult I see they were ex-school books but it was erased from my memory. Lastly while at a library sale I saw some books and when I saw the covers I got this zap in the pit of my stomach and suddenly recalled it was used in my school, upon looking at the book I see it is a first grade reading text but was more of a general reading book with reading comprehension questions not just a phonics reader like "The Bob Books".) So I take it that I learned "the middle way" not just one method, and it was a blend of school work and free reading at home (no pressure from my parents was given).

My mother learned to read in the early 1950s using ONLY sight reading with the Dick and Jane books. She claims to never have learned phonics. She was labeled a "poor student" and later "dyslexic" also is a horrible speller. Her poor reading and those labels affects her self-esteem to this day and she thinks she is stupid and unteachable. Very, very sad if you ask me.

I think you are right about a little of this and a little of that and whatever works is good.

I homeschool my children and used intensive phonics and phonics readers and some sight readers then bridging over to more 'real' and interesting books.

Lastly have you shown your four year old the Leap Frog videos? Everyone I know who uses them says their kids spontaneously start sounding out words and reading on their own with very little guidance from the parents, children ages 3 and 4 and 5, they just love the videos.

I had not known about them and my son was given one for his 4th birthday, the one that teaches blending and he began blending so without me ever having taught him anything about reading he was reading on his fourth birthday. I did then sit down with him and did Alpha Phonics as he was angry that he didn't know everything and he whizzed through it. It was a relief to have an easy reader kid after having one who was more of a "slow and steady" learning process.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a little of this and a little of that but i think phonics is the best way after they get started. I don't by the way believe "Dick and Jane" was only sight words. The words they used the children could sound out. My daughter is in kindergarten now and they are using sight words. Which has taught her certain words but hasn't taught her to read. She can read only lines with those certain words. But I've introduced her to Dick and Jane words and as i add books she is teaching herself the new words by sounding them out. As she goes they add a few words and we sound them out and it adds lessons. Like Silent "E" and the TH sounds like "TH" not separately and she's getting better and better. I think sighter words limit the words learned and the kids who's parents are teaching phonics at home are getting somewhere but if you leave it up to the schools "Who only teach sight words" the kids would never learn to actually READ. My daughters teacher hasn't done any phonics at all yet only sight words the words on the SOL's. Good luck with that...

Unknown said...

I am a 53 year old African American woman living in Denmark. I too loved Dick and Jane when I was learning to read. I too remember turning the pages, looking at the pictures (and the smell of the book). I think the coziness comes in remembering your childhood and the firend(s)that helped you along the way. I never made a conscience connection that Dick and Jane were white. I focused on learning to read and didn't care "who" was teaching me. By the way I love to read, am good at it and my spelling is okay.