Today is the birthday of Dr. Seuss, a favorite of mine from way back. (I know I’m not the only one who can say that, but it’s worth mentioning.) Several years ago, I decided I wanted to collect all of his books because they remind me of my childhood, and they’re just fun to read. (There are also bragging rights involved, but that’s a lesser motivation because not many people would be impressed by such a collection.)
What I respect most about Dr. Seuss is not his talent, though his use of meter and rhyme is creative, witty, and extremely challenging. (Try it.) And it’s not his beautiful illustrations, so imaginative and sometimes, haunting. (See: the darker pages of Oh, The Places You’ll Go.) What I love best about Dr. Seuss is that his contribution to and impact on literacy and elementary education has not only lasted, but is celebrated in schools and libraries across the country every year.
If you don’t know the history on Dr. Seuss, allow me to tell you. In the 1950’s and earlier, most grade school reading classes were taught from the old “Dick and Jane” stories. The stories, as I’m sure you know, are dry, unimaginative, and repetitive. Yes, repetition is important in learning, but it’s not the only important element. In my days of teaching, I always said, “Before we can do anything else, the student has to want to be engaged. S/he has to be interested in the material in order to pay any attention to it.” Kids weren’t interested in Dick and Jane. Let’s face it, all they did was “run”, “throw”, “look”, and “see”. Not a lot of intrigue there.
On one hand, one can kind of understand the difficulty in writing for beginning readers. Most elementary reading books and stories are entirely focused on Dolch sight words. This word list is comprised of 220 most common words, and 95 frequently used nouns. Therefore, you can see why the authors of the Dick and Jane stories felt so restricted.
Dr. Seuss, on the other hand, was a clever and witty writer. He used these 220 words and from them was able to compose The Cat in the Hat. We all know from reading this book, that it is exciting, and funny story – the impish antics of the Cat in the Hat creating a mess, and the fear of punishment when the parents come home. Every child can relate to that. Combine an interesting story, and early reading sight words with a reliable meter, and you have an easy and fun way for children to learn to read. That is what Dr. Seuss means to the worlds of education and literacy. And for that he should be celebrated every time any of us picks up a book!