Dr. Seuss and Children’s Books
So, what does that have to do with Dr. Seuss?
The 1960’s classroom was filled with Dick and Jane books. Seuss believed the Dick and Jane books were boring to children.
Houghton Mifflin, a prominent book publishing company, noted that reading levels were going down in schools. A director from Houghton Mifflin reportedly sent Seuss a list of 350 words students were expected to easily read and gave him the challenge to write a book that would keep children interested in reading, using at least 250 of the words on the list. The Cat in the Hat was the result! Seuss used 250 words to write this now quintessential, must-have book.
Green Eggs and Ham was born out of a bet from Bennett Cerf, Seuss’ editor. He bet that Seuss couldn’t write an intriguing book with only 50 words. Of course, Seuss proved him wrong. Green Eggs and Ham is comprised of only 50 words and is a favorite book of many children.
Dr. Seuss’ books gained immense popularity over time. Even today, Read Across America, a national movement created by the NEA that promotes reading across America, uses Dr. Seuss books as a promotional tool to encourage reading in all 50 states. We applaud the effort our schools are making to promote reading at every grade level.
Let’s look at some of the actual words encountered in these beloved books. Our staff did a review of a number of these books, and were amazed at the actual skill level required to decode (reading by processing letters-to-sound to whole word) the words in Dr. Seuss’ books. Here are some samples:
What Pet Should I Get
ow as in cow: ow, ou, (round, house, now, how)
oo as in book: oo, ou ( took, shook, look, good, would, should, could)
oo as in good: oo and two (good, noon, soon, choose, two)
igh as in sigh: igh (night, might, right)
Schwa: a as in another
Vowel R: er as in another
Hop On Pop
igh as in sigh: ( night, fight)
Long I, vowel-consonant E: (like)
ou as in house: (house, mouse, how, brown)
oo as in book and good: (good, too)
I Can Read With My Eyes Shut
ue as in blue: (blue)
ew as in few: (few)
ow as in cow: ow, ou (brown, down, owls)
ow as in flow: (pillow)
ou as in about: (about)
I as in -ight: (might, tight, right)
I as in eye: eye, eyebrows
Long E -ea: (read, least)
I followed by a vowel says E: (Indianapolis)
Silent K: (knees)
AR as in car: (hard)
AR, unaccented, ER: dollars, collars
Vowel-Consonant-E: (pickle, purple, circle, ankles)
ou, ough: (doughnut, enough, young)
ch as in Christmas: (anchors)
There are more reading rules for this book….
So how is it that a Kindergartener or first grader can “read” many of the Doctor Seuss books at such an early age? Students at this grade level are not proficient decoders of these vowel and letter combinations and their variant sounds. In fact, more direct instruction of some of these patterns doesn’t begin in earnest until 2nd grade.
Kindergarteners and 1st graders are reading by sight and most likely by memorizing many of the Seuss stories. This happens with many popular books that children repeatedly hear and then “read.” While this does build a child’s early skills that are important to understanding the process of reading: symbols represent words, books are read from front to back in English, oral vocabulary is built, etc., and the intended goal of memorizing words visually, we don’t want students to be stuck at this level of early literacy. Students must be able to decode words in books they need or want to read, (read by sounding out and applying meaning to larger chunks of symbols), and this skill should continue to grow throughout their lives.
Parents are often confused when their child has been able to “read” sight-word based books, such as the Dr. Seuss books, yet begin to struggle when expectations to read less structured text becomes the daily assignment. They don’t understand why a child has begun to struggle to read the grade-level assignments. And in most cases, the child who has been reading by sight, will also be struggling to spell words that they have not memorized.
A strong foundation for reading must be built. One in which students will be able to read a word accurately and determine its meaning when enough meaning is known for small word parts, whether they have studied the word before or not.
Teacher Instruction at Our Nation’s Universities
While many schools are beginning to do a better job with more explicit structured literacy instruction, others are still steeped in outdated reading instruction methods and philosophies. Updated reading instruction coursework for new and existing teachers at our universities across the country is moving very slowly to incorporate pre-service teacher instruction in reading that works for almost all students. They have been very slow to incorporate the science-based information about dyslexia, a reading difficulty that impacts up to 20% of the population, that is now prevalent in our science community. In fact, recent conversations with newly graduated students of education departments from local universities in Washington State, inform me that they have had NO instruction regarding dyslexia in their teacher coursework.
A Foundation for Reading Must Be Built
Individuals with dyslexia (with weak visual or working memory) struggle to keep chains of letters in memory for reading whole words, have difficulty with letter orientation, and usually struggle with sound to letter learning in the fast-paced environment of the regular classroom. They need an approach that includes more explicit instruction with more practice and exposure to the reading process than their peers. Most older students, and even adults, who receive this type of reading instruction exclaim, “Why hasn’t anyone taught me to read this way before now!”