Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, wrote some of the most famous children’s books of all time. The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham have more in common than just being popular. Both were written almost entirely with sight words. Most people are unaware that Dr. Seuss books were created to supplement the majority of whole word reading programs in schools. In 1957, Seuss was commissioned to write a book using only 223 sight words supplied by the publisher. The publishers believed that if kids could memorize the words in the book, they would be better prepared for reading instruction at school. Dr. Seuss books have been categorized with the ‘look say’ movement, a method of teaching beginners to read by memorizing and recognizing whole words, rather than by associating letters with sounds. It was invented in the 1830s by Thomas Gallaudet, the famous teacher of deaf students. For some strange reason he thought it could be adapted for all readers.
Because the books are so simple you would think they were easy for Dr. Seuss to write. The reality was much different:
They think I did it in twenty minutes. That damned Cat in the Hat took nine months until I was satisfied. I did it for a textbook house and they sent me a word list. That was due to the Dewey revolt in the Twenties in which they threw out phonic reading and went to word recognition, as if you’re reading Chinese pictographs instead of blending sounds of different letters. I think killing phonics was one of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country. Anyway, they had it all worked out that a healthy child at the age of four can learn so many words in a week and that’s all. So there were two hundred and twenty-three words to use in this book. I read the list three times and I almost went out of my head. I said, I’ll read it once more and if I can find two words that rhyme that’ll be the title of my book. (That’s genius at work.) I found “cat” and “hat” and I said, “The title will be The Cat in the Hat.”
By reading Dr. Seuss books children entered grade one already having mastered a sight vocabulary of several hundred words. The hope was that reading would be a breeze. However some parents started asking: how is it that my child is showing signs of dyslexia before even having had any formal reading instruction? Because they memorized Dr. Seuss books! The children developed a block against seeing words phonetically, with some developing dyslexia. They became sight readers with a holistic reflex rather than phonetic readers with a phonetic reflex. The problem is that this approach ignores the letter-sound association of reading. This sort of practice produces the symptoms of dyslexia: reading words backwards, reversing letters when writing, gross misspellings, word guessing, word skipping, leaving out words, and putting in words that aren’t there. The reason why dyslexia is so hard to cure is because the child has acquired a holistic reflex, automatically looking at words in their whole configurations.
Once the words get more complex the sight reader has no strategy to sound out the words. By third or fourth grade, where the reading demands are much greater, the sight reader’s overburdened memory cannot handle decoding. This explains much of the ‘fourth grade slump’. There is a breakdown in learning. The reading disability becomes evident. No wonder many students struggle to comprehend what they are reading when they have trouble even decoding the words. The phonetic way is a method used for thousands of years with an unparalleled track record of success. Why did educators try to reinvent the wheel with the sight method?
Dr. Seuss knew that ‘killing phonics’ was a cause of dyslexia. But somehow that insight, made by one of the most famous writers of children’s books, has escaped educators.