This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, January 22, 1992

January 22, 1992 - Primers : the decline of textbooks

You might expect them to be within pages of each other in the encyclopedia: McGuffey and McKee. But in fact, the educational approaches -- and ultimate legacies of William Holmes McGuffey and Paul Gordon McKee -- are universes apart.

William McGuffey was a clergyman and educator, best known for his series of "Eclectic Readers." From the mid-1830s through the mid-1850s, over 120 million of the illustrated "McGuffey readers" were sold for use by elementary students.

The McGuffey readers were liberally sprinkled with excerpts from American government and economic history. They also featured a broad pantheon of American writers. McGuffey was particularly fond of long, sonorous poems, fit for reciting.

Many scholars believe that these books exerted a profound influence on the American public. The books stressed good, old-fashioned American virtues -- self-reliance, democratic ideals, honesty, AMERICAN writing.

But there's something scholars DON'T write about. You'd probably notice it immediately. I did, when somebody donated an old McGuffey reader to us some months ago.

The book cover labeled it a fifth grade reader. By today's standards, the book was COLLEGE level material.

What's happened in the past century or so?

A good case could be made that Americans have become increasingly illiterate since about 1930. Part of the problem -- not all of it -- can be traced to a watering down, a decline in the quality, of our textbooks.

This trend began, I believe, with another educator. His name was Paul McKee. For many years he was the Dean of the College of Education, at Greeley's University of Northern Colorado.

Probably McKee's name is not familiar to you. But I'll bet his books are. Do the names "Dick" and "Jane" ring a bell?

Given the fact that almost every baby boomer I talk to remembers them, I'm willing to bet that there were at least as many Dick and Jane books as there were McGuffey readers.

Teaching young children to read was McKee's specialty. And his philosophy was based on the simple premise that literacy is incremental. That is, first you teach children the alphabet, then some basic sound combinations, then some simple words, then drill them in the words, then add words that are a little harder.

The Dick and Jane series -- which were first published in the late 1950s -- were perfect examples of this approach. "Oh. See Dick. Oh, see Dick run! Run, Dick, run!"

No doubt about it. The books were incremental. Each letter, each phrase, each sentence, each paragraph, built relentlessly on the one before it.

But they were BORING.

Since the dawn of recorded history, one of the driving forces behind the urge to learn to read has been the need -- after hearing part of an exciting story -- to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. In the Dick and Jane primers -- NOTHING happened, ever.

So how did this affect the students? Their eyes glazed over. They sat back. They looked out the window. Occasionally, they focused back on the teacher when a new character appeared. (See Spot! See Puff!)

We can only give thanks that no one has yet suggested that we send our infants to school to learn to SPEAK.

When the test scores started to roll in, surely these educators must have wondered why ever fewer children could read as well as they had under the McGuffey readers.

A scientific approach might have suggested that alternative B (controlled vocabulary teaching) just wasn't as good as alternative A (a comprehensive exposure to American literature). But McKee -- and his colleagues -- reached another conclusion. The Dick and Jane books were TOO HARD -- or maybe they built up the hard words too fast. So they sought to make their books even easier.
about the moment that this educational philosophy reached its peak, the books of Dr. Seuss made their appearance. They set the incremental vocabulary approach on its ear. Seuss too was repetitive -- but he returned a sense of play to the use of language. And his books had plots -- real stories. Not surprisingly, children loved them.

What's my point?

First, the first books your children hear are important. Don't underestimate your child's intelligence or capacity to respond to rich language. What should you read to your child? Good stories. Don't worry about them being too hard. Your children may surprise you.

Second, browse through an encyclopedia sometime. Chances are, you'll find McGuffey. You'll find Seuss. But look! No Paul McKee!

'Bye, Dick! 'Bye Jane!

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