Dick and Jane Readers

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Dick and Jane Readers

For nearly 40 years, from 1930 through about 1970, more than 85 million American schoolchildren learned to read using the Dick and Jane readers that were part of a series published by the Scott Foresman Company. The books took their name from the series' lead characters who, with a dog named Spot and a kitten named Puff, inhabited a nostalgic, innocent American landscape of white picket fences and neighborliness. So deeply have the Dick and Jane stories been etched into the minds of the Baby Boomer generation and their immediate predecessors that the repetitive phrase "See Spot run! Run, Spot, run!" is today remembered by millions as the very first sentences they could read on their own. It has been estimated that four-fifths of the nation's schools were using Dick and Jane readers, ranking the books with the venerable McGuffey Readers of the nineteenth century as a tool of universal literacy.

With an emphasis on methodology over content, the Dick and Jane series was conceived in part as a rebellion against then in-vogue didactic traditions that relied heavily on moralistic and patriotic texts drawn from the Bible, Shakespeare, and American historical legends. The Dick and Jane readers emphasized non-phonic sight reading and repetitive, limited vocabulary, a formula that became a parody of itself by the time their approach was jettisoned in the tumultuous 1960s, to be replaced by phonics and books with more diverse characters and situations. The fact that method trumped content in the choice of storylines for the Dick and Jane readers provoked frequent criticism, such as this acerbic remark from educational critic Arther S. Trace: "Students could learn a great deal indeed from early American readers, but the only possible answer to what children can learn from the Dick-and-Jane type reader is, 'Nothing of any consequence."'

The Dick and Jane program was developed by three people—Dr. William S. Gray, an authority on pedagogy, and by Zerna Sharp and Harry B. Johnston. Working with teachers and school psychologists, the three worked as a team to develop the Scott Foresman series, using the limited vocabulary technique advocated by Dr. Gray. Thus, the first grade Dick and Jane readers had only about 300 words, the third grade reader about 1,000, and the sixth grade reader about 4,000. Writers for the series had to adhere to strict guidelines about using limited words, and were required to introduce only a few of them on each page, then repeat them frequently in forthcoming pages. Poetry and imaginative literature were nonexistent. All this led to criticism that the books were uninteresting and unnatural.

Dick and Jane first made their appearance in 1930, in a pre-primer of the Elson-Gray basic reader series, with stories in large type under vividly colored heavy-line illustrations set in boxes according to 1920s graphics conventions. It was not until 1941, when Eleanor Campbell began illustrating the series, that the Dick and Jane characters, in pastel, took on the rounder, "cuter" form known to most Baby Boomers, inviting comparisons with Norman Rockwell for their evocation of idyllic small-town life and situations. Within a short time, other books were added to the series, including More Dick andJane Stories and Dick and Jane. In 1937, a pre-primer Before We Read was introduced. The concept caught on, and by the end of the 1930s half of America's schoolchildren were learning to read with Dick and Jane.

The Dick and Jane series was completely revised in 1940, introducing Campbell's illustrations and three paper-bound pre-primers—We Look and See, We Work and Play, and We Come and Go, which prepared students for the 160 page primer Fun With Dick and Jane. It was in this edition that "Baby" became known as "Sally," that Spot became a long-haired spaniel, and in which the kitten previously known as "Little Mew" was renamed "Puff." In 1950 another revision introduced The New Basic Readers, with updating of storylines and illustrations to reflect a more suburban postwar lifestyle.

In 1941, a special edition of the Dick and Jane readers was developed for Roman Catholic schools, the nation's largest non-public school system. Called the Cathedral series, this version featured Catholic situations and even changed the names of the characters to children with more "Catholic" names—John, Jean, and Judy.

The universe of the Dick and Jane readers was one of optimism and innocence, inviting criticism that the situations were unreal and stereotypical. As Sara Goodman Zimet writes in What Children Read in School: "Dick and Jane's world is a friendly one, populated by good, smiling people who are ready and eager to help children whenever necessary … There are no evil impulses to be controlled. Instead, free rein and encouragement is given for seeking more and more fun and play." Arther S. Trace, Jr. complained that the Dick and Jane readers ironically painted authority figures in an unfavorable light, noting that "Father behaves like a candidate for the all-American clown. He acts, in fact, like an utter ass, and Mother is almost as good a representative of the female of the species … These stories do, of course, help adjust students to life if their fathers and mothers are fools … The Dick and Jane readers for the early grades are comic books in hard covers." City life is generally ignored in the Dick and Jane readers, leading other critics to implicate the books as partially responsible for low reading scores in inner-city schools. The series was not adapted for racial diversity until shortly before its demise; it was not until 1965 that African American characters were introduced in the form of Dick and Jane's neighbors, Mike, Pam, and Penny. The Dick and Jane readers fell into general disfavor around this time, partly due to changes in reading pedagogy that advanced more realistic and relevant storylines, and partly because of complaints of the book's racial and sex-role stereotyping. Still, the books retain a sentimental hold over the millions of Americans who learned their first words within their covers, and the Dick and Jane readers have become both collectors' items and cultural icons.

—Edward Moran

Further Reading:

Kismaric, Carole, and Marvin Heiferman. Growing Up with Dick and Jane. San Francisco, Collins, 1996.

Trace, Arther S., Jr. Reading without Dick & Jane. Chicago, Henry Regnery Company, 1965.

Zimet, Sara Goodman, editor. What Children Read in School: Critical Analysis of Primary Reading Textbooks. New York, Grune & Stratton, 1972.