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Dick and Jane

Recently, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary editor Peter Sokolowski announced that the word “nostalgia” was the second most looked-up word this year. “Nostalgia” is not a word that all of us use every day, so that it was not too surprising that it was frequently looked up to determine its meaning. Nostalgia means, “when one yearns for the past.” Many people older than 50 remember that they learned how to read from their use of "Dick and Jane" books when they first began to read.

After World War I, publishers began producing primers incorporating some of the changes that John Dewey, William S. Gray and other experts advocated. When we learned to read, we read “Dick and Jane” stories. In 1930, the series was authored by Dr. William S. Gray and William H. Elston, illustrated by Zerna Sharp and published by Scott, Foresman and Co. The new primer introduced characters with whom children could identify, and contained stories featuring the same set of siblings engaged in normal day-to-day activities. In order to develop a new series, the primers de-emphasized regional characteristics. Dick and Jane were children of Mother and Father, and they had a little sister named Sally. They had a dog named Spot and a cat named Puff.

The lives of the characters in the first Dick and Jane books were a wordless pre-reader. New titles were later added as we were introduced to Dick and Jane's family. In 1936, Happy, the black-and-white terrier, became Spot, a sentimental cocker spaniel, and Mew, the kitten's name, was changed to Puff. Puff became more adventurous in her interactions with the children. Dick is the all-American boy, a role model protector of his young sisters. Jane is a little girl's dream as being bright and responsible. Sally was transformed from the name of Baby, and often was referred to as Baby Sally or Little Sally, and was portrayed as an unpredictable child of energy, whose silly antics added action to the stories. Surprisingly, she appears in a large portion of the stories in the “Guess Who” series, more than Dick or Jane. Father is tolerant and soft-spoken, while Mother is pretty and graceful, an excellent homemaker who makes everything she does seem easy. Sally's toy teddy bear, Tim, seemed to be superfluous because it appears in less than 5 percent of the story.

When reading any of the series, one will note that each scene takes place during the day, the sun is always shining, nighttime never comes, knees are never scraped, parents never yell, and the fun never stops. The action only takes place in the home or outside of it. Children who read any of the books can associate themselves with the children because they don't need to go to school; they just have fun. The series seemed to have a limited vocabulary of about 78 words. The repetition of some words were effective because they led to our young readers to want to learn them. However, since the use of school buses in 1930 was fairly new, an obvious school bus was pictured in one of the scenes and merely described as a large car. A few personal pronouns, such as “I," "me," "my" and "it,” were part of the word list, while all others pronouns were not included because they were only inclusive in a narrative voice, like “he," "she," "him," "her," "our," "we" and "us.”

After the first “Dick and Jane" book, many others followed. For the next 40 years, more than 60 million students enjoyed Dick and Jane's family. By the 1950s, an estimated 80 percent of first-graders were using “Dick and Jane.” By the next 20 years, it was found that U.S. children couldn't read very well and “Dick and Jane” received the blame.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote a book called, “Why Johnny Can't Read.” He blasted the series as “horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers” and he called for “a more engaging, phonic-based approach.” He found that his idea of only using phonics to teach children how to read were initially ignored by educators, politicians and parents. Other phonics advocates supported Flesch's theories focusing on the new phonics, and introduced students to real literature. The problem with this approach is that student trudge through each word, losing the impact of the message.

During the years of the “Dick and Jane” books' existence, educators denounced the repetitious language, the goodie-goodie behavior of the children, the changing roles of the American family, and ethnic issues. These criticisms seem to be one-sided because the repetitious language was critical in teaching young children to remember the words, and their meanings. Even though the actions of the children and the rest of the characters resulted in a fantasy atmosphere, children at this preschool and early education age need fantasies (eg. Fairy tales). Parents did not wish to expose their small children to the reality of life so early. The most critical of these were ethnic issues, since all of the characters were white and children of other races felt excluded.

By the mid-1960s, the series underwent many revisions: The books had a larger page size, new updated artwork and a larger portion of new stories, and Dick, Jane and Sally were a bit older and more sophisticated. Vocabulary control then became a bit looser, and more phonics were added.

Black characters and characters from other races and cultures were not introduced until 1965. The first new primers were called “Now we read and fun with the family,” and reflected the addition of a black family. The children were called Mike, and his twin sisters Pam and Penny.

Primer reading books have drastically changed today, but “Dick and Jane” books will continue to be part of our literary history. Beginning to read at an early age is a integral part of that history, and it has become another way to “watch your language.”

Michael Ricci is a retired English teacher and spelling advocate. He can be contacted regarding comments on any of his columns at This is his 65th column for The Citizen.


Features editor for The Citizen.