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Dick and Jane Revisit the Reading Wars

The title of my article betrays me to some and mystifies the rest. Those receiving A.A.R.P. mailings on a daily basis recognize Dick and Jane as the two main characters from the popular series of basal readers from the 1930s through the 1970s. Those not yet on the mailing list (Your time draws nigh) will need a bit of background.

Although the reading wars have somewhat died down recently since the death of the “whole language” movement of the 1980s and 1990s, the two opposing camps remain garrisoned behind an unstable DMZ. One side still believes that we learn to read naturally “whole word to part” through exposure to lots of text, memorization of whole words or onsets and rimes (e.g., c-ake and b-ake), and the use of context clues (the Look-Say Method of Dick and Jane, “whole language,” and Stephen Krashen).

The other side still believes that we learn to read “part to whole word” by learning and applying the alphabetic code to decipher the English sound-spelling system (SRA Open Court, phonics, spelling-the side that’s currently winning).

What about Dr. Seuss? The good doctor treats the wounded on both sides with his Cat in the Hat.

Of course, no one would agree with all, or perhaps any, of the above characterizations. Most teachers tend to be practical soldiers and go from camp to camp as they see fit. As a reading specialist, working with remedial students on a daily basis, I frequently cross over enemy lines when remedial reading students may benefit.

But, with respect to our remedial readers, we do need to “draw our lines in the sand” a bit with regard to Dick and Jane. “Oh, see. Oh, see Jane. Funny, funny Jane,” will not inspire either the “whole to part” or “part to whole” camps, nor any of our remedial readers. The following “reading test” that pretends to prove the Dick and Jane approach still makes the rounds on blog posts and mass emails:

Cambridge University Reading Test

Aoccdrnig to a rseearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?

At first (or second) read, the above example seems to validate the whole-word method of the Dick and Jane series. You can read the words above with just their first and last letters. Phonics are bogus!

But, wait a minute… There never was such a reading test developed at Cambridge University. The “test” is a hoax. The trick behind the hoax is that not only are the first and last letters in the same place, but most of the consonants appear in the exact order of the word. Only the vowels are all removed, rearranged, and replaced.

Text-messaging proves the point. Try texting this sentence to a friend: Tgouhh pprehas ploepe rlleay cluod cphoreenmd, gievn uteimlnid tmie,  ecfecfniiy sfruefs gatelry.*

A bit more challenging? Your friend will certainly have more difficulty reading your message because even though the first and last letters are in the same place, the consonants and medial vowels are not. So, the Cambridge University “Reading Test” actually points to the fact that readers really do look at all of the letters and apply the alphabetic code to read efficiently.

So, although I learned to read with the Dick and Jane series, the problem is that this approach does not seem to be as successful when students come from less literate households. In sum, the “Look-Say Method” probably would work for 80% of our population, but systematic phonics instruction seems to work to some degree for everyone.

My practical experience validates this conclusion. Teaching reading intervention students from fourth grade up through community college has helped me identify one common denominator of students who struggle with reading: they don’t know and can’t apply the alphabetic code. Diagnostic assessments almost always lead to this conclusion.

In fact, the English sound-spelling system is remarkably consistent and well-worth learning, especially for remedial readers. Yes, there are exceptions, but better to learn the rules and adjust to the exceptions.

So sorry, Dick and Jane… Cambridge University “Reading Test”? An urban legend and a complete hoax.

*Though perhaps people really could comprehend, given unlimited time, efficiency suffers greatly.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, adaptable to various instructional settings, and simple to use. With multiple choice reading assessments on two CDs, formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages on eight CDs, 390 flashcards, posters, activities, and games (364 pages), even novice reading teachers and para-professionals will be able to use these user-friendly resources to effectively differentiate reading instruction with minimal preparation.

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  1. Sandra Fulton
    October 2nd, 2010 at 18:26 | #1

    Re: The “Cambridge University Reading Test” … yes, it’s bogus, and the message that “the human mind doesn’t read every letter by itself” is a blanket generalization that doesn’t hold across reading contexts. But neither does your claim that the test “actually points to the fact that readers really do look at all of the letters and apply the alphabetic code to read efficiently.”

    The phenomenon illustrated by the “test” is called the Reicher-Wheeler effect. It demonstrates the role of top-down cognitive processes at work during reading. Of course, the closer the misspelled word is to the standard (familiar) spelling, the less effort it takes to decode. When then first and last letters are intact, it’s even easier. This is because words have overall contours, not just features, and get processed by both sides of the brain (not just the left). When reading becomes automatic, and comprehension is the goal, readers often don’t even notice when the surface code is inconsistent with what they are accustomed to seeing.

    It may be true, in the case of the “test”, that comprehension is improved by the position of the consonants. But readers can use any number of strategies to decode text at the word level – only one of which involves bottom-up processes (i.e., “looking at all the letters and applying the alphabetic code.”)

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