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Building better readers in South Dakota
Guest column by Dr. Joseph Graves, South Dakota Education Secretary
Growing up on the eastern edge of Sioux Falls in the 1960s was, not to put too fine a point on it, idyllic. And it’s not just that old age depicts the entire calendar of one’s youth as Halcyon Days. Mine really were Halcyon Days.
We were a middle-class family of five boys, a father who taught junior high mathematics and a stay-at-home mom. Mom doted on all of us but, as the youngest, on me in particular. One of my favorite memories of her — and, believe me, the list is extensive — is being tucked in at night and listening to one of my favorite books. These tended toward Dr. Seuss or one of his imprints (P.D. Eastman and his colleagues). They were all books written with my 4-year-old reality in mind.
Which is why I found it odd that Mom, when she proceeded to teach me to read, turned not to Yertle the Turtle, Sam and the Firefly, or the Cat in the Hat but to William Gray’s Dick and Jane books. Ignoring the obvious but snide joke about ‘Gray’ being a perfect name for the author of such books, Dick and Jane books were less than enthralling. They were, in fact, tedious; designed, it seems, to discourage anyone from reading — the child in bed, the parent seated nearby under the lamp, that guy from the Twilight Zone who wanted nothing more than to read his life away but who stepped on his only spectacles after a nuclear strike.
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Gray’s work was actually innovative for its day (1930s-1965). By providing simple stories with few, easy-to-read words, it allowed beginner readers to actually read a book. Prior to that time, children’s literature was along the lines of The Hobbit, which only proficient readers can comprehend. The problem was that, very quickly, it wasn’t enough to be able to read a book, you needed something you wanted to read.
Enter Dr. Seuss and his minions.
Given that, why did my sainted mother introduce me to Dick and Jane? She did so because they complemented the arduous phonics lessons she put me through. She did it, in other words, right.
Unfortunately, the appeal of Dr. Seuss had an unintended effect. It somehow convinced people not just that early reading should be simple (short, common words) and entertaining, but also effortless. And so Whole Language was born, misguided methods of ‘teaching’ reading which didn’t teach children how to read at all. Soon after, it made its way into the schools.
Traditionalists, those who believed reading was a difficult skill to master and involved intensive phonics instruction, were marginalized as old-fashioned, out-of-step. The Reading Wars ensued as the pro-phonics forces battled the enemy camp, which believed children would somehow learn to read without actual instruction in how to read.
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Thankfully, the Reading Wars are over. Phonics won. Actually, the Science of Reading won, and — after decades of research — we now know exactly how to best teach reading. As a result, the South Dakota Department of Education will be providing extensive, voluntary professional development to teachers and districts across the state in the Science of Reading. If our experience is like that of a few other states who have invested heavily in Science of Reading and among a number of districts who have already jumped in with both feet, we will soon see significant, positive jumps in our youngest pupils’ reading proficiency.
That will only come, as do all worthwhile things, after a lot of hard work by South Dakota’s educators and those they serve. Knowing them as I do, I am confident that both are up to the task.
Parents can still feel free to tuck in their kids and pull out their favorite copy of Are You My Mother? Dr. Seuss has a place and time — just not in reading instruction.
Dr. Joseph Graves is the South Dakota Secretary of Education.