Dick and Jane are No Fun

So it's back into the swing of things – week two and we are already being let loose on unsuspecting seven year olds as part of our English primary curriculum work.

One of the things I have always wondered about is the aversion many teachers and academics seem to have against 'learning to read' books (or 'basal readers' in the lingo). I have always assumed this is because they presented language in questionable ways, or dumbed down something that shouldn't be dumbed down. Conversely, these teachers would speak of the importance of 'quality children's literature', which always seemed a bit lofty to me, but still…

I realised today that the main benefit of literature over readers is simply one of motivation. From a pre-literate age, children (like the rest of us) love stories. Stories capture our interest, and sustain our engagement. It is for precisely this reason that 'story books' (or 'quality children's literature' if you must) are key. If we achieve mastery through practice, then anything that gets us turning page after page will make a difference in building literacy.

Yes, 'Dick and Jane' (and I jest, there is a wide range of language learning texts available, not all of which feature Dick and Jane) can probably teach someone to read. But what child is going to rush over to the book corner to re-discover the excitement of Dick running, or Jane seeing Dick running? There are far better things to do – from sailing over the sea with Max to heeding the word of the Onceler, from listening to Tashi's tales of far away to solving cases with Encyclopedia Brown. Stories that surprise us, characters that delight us, worlds that captivate us. And it is these stories that will stretch us to the increasingly dizzying heights of literacy.

2 thoughts on “Dick and Jane are No Fun

  1. Ben Rolfe

    But there’s a big step up in skill level from Dick and Jane to the Lorax and the Wild Things, and again to Tashi and Encyclopedia Brown, no?
    Are there any example of *early* reading texts that anyone would describe as quality literature? Can there be? Is this like asking for a finger-painting example of high art? (and is that such an unreasonable request?)

  2. brett rolfe

    Completely reasonable request. And I guess this is where my concern around the standard of ‘quality’ comes about. As long as it generates interest and sustains some form of narrative flow (and does not hideous harm to the English language), is sounds good to me!
    From memory it is ‘Animalia’ (big shout out to all the Graeme Base loathers in the audience tonight!) that has animals by letter, which is a at least engaging – I’m not sure about narrative. There are other books that grow a story by letter in a similar way.
    We saw a great Gillian Rubenstein book last week called ‘Dog In, Cat Out’, which tells the story of a cat and a dog in a family house over the course of the day – on each page each animal may be in or may be out, and the text is simply the four words describing the situation. By learning to simply identify which word is which, the child becomes able to ‘read’ the story (to assist, the letter as the start of each word is capitalised and in red).
    I believe there are also a renga of books that just stick to very simple text and sparse wording. As they rely more on the illustrations, they tend to do well or poorly on that basis, but they definitely do exist.
    I was also happy to hear our Mathematics lecturer today speaking in the same way of the importance of story-based literature for maths. There are also lots of basic numeracy texts that include stories, things like ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’ and ‘One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish’. These are obviously a lot more intrinsically motivating that a book with a bunch of random objects and a number on each page.


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