Doctor Seuss: A Different Perspective

Today is Dr. Seuss Day March 2, 2012. This is a picture of me with a copy of Dr. Seuss’ famous The Cat in the Hat.

I am afraid very few people know the true story  behind Dr. Seuss’ books: their origin, purpose, and some unintended effects on literacy in America. Doctor Seuss’ book are basically Dick and Jane type look-and-say (sight-words) readers on steroids, made available on a universal scale.

Sam Blumenfeld gives us some little known history in his article, Can Dyslexia Be Artificially Induced in School?

Mr. Edward Miller also wrote eloquently on the Dr. Seuss books in his Feb. 23, 1999  “Complaint to the FTC.” He published an update in 2004.

Below is a letter I wrote to Mr. Samuel L. Blumenfeld concerning the details of how Dr. Seuss’ books were written.

Historical Note on Dr. Seuss’ Sight-Vocabulary Readers by Donald L. Potter

Dear Sam (Blumenfeld), [10/2/2010]

William Spalding of Macmillan publishing was the son of Frank E. Spaulding, author of the popular 1907 Aldine reading series and the Yale Dean of Education! Frank E. Spaulding studied under Wilhelm Wundt in Germany. William Spalding, author of the Macmillan look-and-say reading series, was “zealous in his conviction that a new lively kind of primer could arrest the growing illiteracy among children.” I guess, Sam, since look-and-say wasn’t working, they thought they would figure out a better way to do look-and-and-say: Pour more gas on the fire to put it out.

This is from Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography by Judith Morgan and Neil Morgan.

We know why Spalding was noticing “growing illiteracy.”

Let me quote some more, “Phillis Cerf had been researching every primer in print, cross-matching word lists until she came up with 379 words from which their contract authors could chose 200, plus twenty easy-to-pronounce “emergency words” for each book. … For Beginner Books, these were the honeymoon months. The new company borrowed two hundred thousand dollars from Random House and began to sign contract authors and artists. Ted and Phyllis agreed to undertake printing of about sixty thousand copies of each Beginner Book. The management was cozy, absorbed and united in creating an innovative way of blending words and illustrations to teach reading. But everyone involved tended to explain the adventure from a different perspective. For the instigator William Spalding who remained an outsider, it was an assault on illiteracy. From his office downstairs, Bennett Cerf looked with awe on the casual launching of this series of children’s readers, soon calling it the “most profitable single publishing entity ever created.” Phillis talked of merging Ted’s “happy genius” with the prosaic but precise science vocabulary word lists. Helen remembered the astonishing journeymen writers who discovered that they simply could not create a book using only two or three hundred words. … Random House soon estimated that it had become the largest publisher of children’s books in America. … Though The Cat in the Hat occupied a triumphant niche in juvenile publishing, William Spalding, the man who had suggested the venture, receded into the blackground. As Houghton Mifflin’s Richard Gladstone, assigned to market The Cat to schools, recalls: “The reader was essentially a Houghton Mifflin project, but we never knew how many we sold. Thousands (of Random’s trade edition] went into schools through jobbers … Random was making more money from this that we were, [and] very rarely in reports of Beginner Books was there any mention of Houghton Mifflin or of Bill Spalding.” Bennett Cerf had lent his author to Houghton Mifflin and then ran away with the book. The bizarre agreement between the two publishers to share Ted continued through The Cat in the Hat Comes Back and an educational edition of Yertle the Turtle, until finally Houghton Mifflin sold its rights to Random House. Then Ceft made an even bigger move. He had marveled at the spiraling profits of the Beginner Books and finally could no longer endure being merely lender and distributor. He had begun to have dreams of empire, he was readying Random House for a merger with some major communications company, and he wanted Beginner Books and its top line tucked neatly inside. In the fiscal year ending April 30, 1960 Beginner Books had a sales volume far exceeding a million dollars. By the end of the year eighteen titles were in bookstores, including a new group of Beginning Reader Books to supplement the earliest school readers. Eventually more than a hundred books were published.

Here is a quote from the book concerning how Geisel wrote Green Eggs and Ham, “Ted had met Cerf’s challenge by writing Green Eggs and Ham with a vocabulary of precisely 50 words. His work sheets were evidence of his marathon wordplay; charts, lists, number counts – mundane bookkeeping that were words removed from its results, the exquisite nonsense of Sam-I-am. The statistics of Ted’s ordeal were ground into his memory. The words he had used most were “not” (eighty-two times) and “I” (eighty-one times). Each word was monosyllabic except “anywhere” (eight times). Ted made obsessive demands on himself that they exceeded any quality control ever demanded on any editor. But with the dare that led to Green Eggs, Cerf had proven himself the idea publisher for Ted. He as an unabashed, beguiled fan who revered his author and his work almost without reservation. Of Ted he said, “You don’t tell Joe DiMaggio how to hit the ball.” He liked to astonish audiences by naming distinguished authors of Random House – Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner and John O’Hara – and to conclude that Ted, alone among them, was a genius.”

Well, Sam, there you have all the information I can squeeze out the Google Preview of this biography of Dr. Seuss. I pride myself in having heard hundreds of children zip right down the Green Egg and Ham vocabulary on Edward Miller’s Holistic List and then come to a screeching halt when they attempted to read the phonetically easy words from Flesch’s Exercises on the Phonetic List. For many it is like hitting a brick wall. I distinctly recall one first grader at the end of first grade who only missed three Dr. Seuss words but 26 of Flesch’s Phonetic words. Just last week one lad went from 21 errors on The Cat in the Hat to a whopping 67 on Flesch’s list, and I have seen worse that that! It is terribly frustrating to be privy to this undeniable proof of artificially induced whole-word dyslexia without being able to convince the educational world that something as seemingly harmless as a sight-word children’s book can produce dyslexia. It is more convenient to think that the kids inherited dyslexia from their parents than that they acquired it from the look-and-say method hidden in children’s books that are highly contaminated with sight-words. With the schools practicing Dolch List words with flash-cards and games, and the Beginning Reader books in every children’s room in America, it is amazing that anyone learns to read objectively from the sounds the letters represent.

Don Potter

Note the remarkable percentages of the total text which are Dolch Words in some other favorite children’s books from the “I Can Read It All By Myself” Random House group of Beginner Books.

87% – Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
78% – Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman
78% – Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman
82% – I Want to Be Somebody New! by Robert Lopshire
83% – A Fly Went By! by Mike McClintock
78% – The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
81% – The Cat in the Hat Comes Back by Dr. Seuss
75% – One fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss

Bottom Line: The Dr. Suess books were part of a conscious effort to counteract Rudolf Flesch’s well researched criticism of the look-and-say method of teaching reading without phonics.

In Dr. Seuss’ own words: Dr. Seuss debunked that idea that he made up his stories with his own words in an interview he gave Arizona magazine in June 1981:

They think I did it in twenty minutes. That ***** 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 a Chinese pictograph 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.’ 

Final Clarification:  I wouldn’t want anyone to get me wrong about my opinion of the Dr. Seuss books. Today I read The Lorax to kindergarten, first-grade, and third-grade at my school. It is a great book to read to kids, but I am uncompromisingly opposed to using the Dr. Seuss books to teach children to read. 

Here is a “Serious Spoof on Dr. Seuss” that I wrote for his birthday on March 2, 2013.

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