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Whatever Happened to Dick and Jane?

Posted by Freddy Hiebert on 4 June 2010

Elfrieda H. Hiebert, University of California, Berkeley

Dick
See, Dick.
See Dick run.

—Elston, Runkel, and Gray (1930)

If you were 6 years old between 1930-1967 in the U.S., there is a high likelihood that this text was the first of your school career. If you were 6 years old between 1967-1988, there is a good chance that your first school text was similar in the kinds of words but without Dick and Jane.

One of the reasons for the longevity of the Dick-and-Jane genre may have been its imprimatur as a research-based program. William S. Gray drew on two lines of research in his work with Scott Foresman that resulted in the 1930 edition of the Elston Readers where Dick, Jane and their menagerie first appeared. The first line was Thorndike’s (1921) analyses of the frequency with which words occurred in written English. If a small number of words accounted for the majority of words in texts, Gray reasoned, learning to read should start with these words.

The second line of research was from Arthur Gates (1930) who made what he called “guesses” based on observational studies of how many repetitions children of different ability levels needed to learn a word (high-frequency words such as the, of, and, to, a). Average-ability children, Gates guessed, needed approximately 35 repetitions to learn a word. Gray guided Scott Foresman editors in engineering the Dick-and-Jane stories to have high-frequency words appear the requisite number of times.

Gray’s perspective was partly right in at least two ways: (a) repetition is important in learning to read (but 35 repetitions for every single word?) and (b) high-frequency words are important in reading connected text. Gray’s perspective was also seriously incomplete. As Jeanne Chall (1967) pointed out, English is an alphabetic language and, as such, requires knowledge of consistent, common letter-sound relationships to learn to read. Dick-and-Jane had not been without phonetically regular words but they had not been presented as systematically as Chall and Fries (1962) argued was necessary. Goodman (1967) and others identified several other ways in which the theory was incomplete. Specifically, reading, at its core, is a process of constructing meaning and learning to read needs to engage students in meaning-making, not simply word recognition. As a result of such critiques, Dick and Jane retired (they were, after all, 67 by then). It was not until the 1988 copyrights of the mainstream basal reading programs that responded to the mandates of the California textbook adoption, however, that the high-frequency model promoted by Gray and Gates was retired.

There is a legacy of the high-frequency model that is still alive and well in the form of books that were modeled after The Cat in the Hat (Dr. Seuss, 1957). The Cat in the Hat resulted from William Spaulding, head of Houghton Mifflin’s education division, asking Dr. Seuss if he could write an engaging story with 300 high-frequency words. Dr. Seuss used 220 high-frequency words in writing The Cat in the Hat. Series modeled after The Cat in the Hat (e.g., I-can-read, Ready-to-Read) continue to show brisk sales to parents and libraries. Further, at least some of these texts (e.g., Little Bear, Frog & Toad, Henry & Mudge, Mr. Putter & Tabby, Arthur) appear in current first-grade books of core reading programs.

Other than such texts, there are few traces of the high-frequency model in current core reading programs. High-frequency words are NOT included in the vocabulary lists of current first-grade programs. Precisely which high-frequency words are taught at which levels of a core reading program is difficult to establish from scope and sequences. Most importantly, the repetition of key words—whether phonetically regular, conceptually central to themes, or high-frequency—is not evident.