Friday, February 18, 2011

If you're reading this, thank Dick and Jane

The Big Book is about 19 inches by 25 inches.
After McGuffey Readers and before Hooked on Phonics, there was Dick and Jane.

Millions of adults of a certain age remember Dick and Jane well. For many, they were the first introduction to books, to stories that didn’t appear on radio or television or in the movies.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, Dick and Jane books were the standard teaching text for beginning readers in schools throughout the nation. Oh, sure. Some places had Alice and Jerry and Jip, but by far the more ubiquitous reader was Dick and Jane (and the dog named Spot, an altogether more suitable name for a dog than Jip.)

Dick and Jane lived an idyllic middle American life in a quiet neighborhood, uncomplicated by the harsh realities of modern living. The stories were simple, of course, especially at the beginning. They grew progressively more difficult as a child moved through the series.

These were basal readers, textbooks designed to teach reading. A basal series usually came with pre-primers and primers for students, word cards, charts, tests and records, a teacher’s edition and a large version, called the Big Book, for use in front of the classroom. An example of the Big Book is in the collection of rare and unusual items at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

Over the decades, the clothing for Dick and Jane changed, as did their pets and playmates. Early on they had a kitten named Spot but soon the kitten’s name became Mew, and then Puff by the 1950s. The dog at first was a terrier named Happy but eventually became a Cocker Spaniel named Spot.

Dick and Jane were siblings about the same age. They had a little sister named Sally. They were little white children and there was no diversity in their world. It was not until 1965 that an African-American family moved in next door and Dick and Jane had new playmates, Mike and his twin sisters Pam and Penny.

The books were as simple as the storyline. Each page contained a colorful illustration that helped move the plot forward and a few words in huge Century Schoolbook typeface. And repetition, the foundation of those basal readers.

Look, Jane.
Look, Dick.
See funny Sally.
Funny, funny Sally.

The plots involved simple everyday activities to which the young readers could relate. Playing with an umbrella. Playing dress up. Rollerskating down the sidewalk. In one episode, Dick puts a harness on Spot and goes for a wild ride under puppy power.

The basal readers received their share of criticism by proponents of a phonics-based reading system. Although the Dick and Jane series did not totally ignore phonics, the emphasis was on sight word reading and repetition.

The series, published by Scott, Foresman and Company, and the Alice and Jerry series, published by Row, Peterson and Company, eventually fell out of favor.

Still, millions of Americans today have fond memories of learning to read with Dick and Jane.

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