Friday, May 22, 2015

Look, Look, Look! Say, Say, Say!

     A few days ago somebody posted the picture of the cover of a book -- a first grade "reader" -- that was popular in the mid-fifties, and for some years on either side of that time.  It was entitled, "Fun With Dick and Jane."  I remembered that book -- or one of its many clones -- because that is the book that was used in my own first-grade "learning experience."

     The editors of that series of books had decided that a "phonetic" approach to reading (which had characterized language-learning and pronunciation for a long, long time) needed to be replaced by the new, more scientific "look-say" method.  The theory was that if you just see the word enough times, and are made to say it, you will remember it.  If that strikes you as more of a "stimulus-response" approach to learning than acquiring knowledge by discovering phonetic rules of pronunciation and interpretation (and proceeding from there to meaning), you might be right.  Be that as it may, I have been told that they discovered, or popularized, this happy method shortly after World War II, which was a decade earlier.

     The characters who were in that book -- those books -- lived in a plain vanilla world that was somewhere between white picket fences (and I do mean white in both senses of the word) and the migration to the suburbs that figured prominently in the times in which they were published.

     Appearing in the cast of characters was Mother, of course, and Father.  Then Dick, and Jane, and little Sally.  And who could forget their beloved pets, Spot the dog and Puff the cat.  I think that Spot was vaguely male, and Puff was vaguely female. (I don't think they ever said, so I'm just going by remembered impressions.)

     At any rate, the books (which had a large and contextually appropriate picture at the top of each page, and a few lines of printing at the bottom) went like this:

     See Spot run.
     Run, Spot, run!
     Run, run, run!

     Look, Jane, look!
     Look, look, look!
     See Spot run!
     Funny, funny Spot!

     Oh! Oh! Oh!
     Stop, Spot, stop!
     Stop, stop, stop!

     As you might suppose, this new approach to reading was great for the sales of many "basic readers," as they were called, and the educational establishment registered its enthusiastic approval of this new, scientific "Look-Say Method." (Experiments had apparently been conducted, and the appropriate statistics verified and published.)  I think it had been originally called the "See-Say" method, but I am not sure about that.  Anyway, phonics were out as the basis for learning pronunciation, or as an aid to learning meaning, or discovering where words come from.  Look-Say was in.

     You will notice that the thoughtful and scientific publishers made sure that increasing "complexity" was not left out.  The exclamation point could be discussed as a point of emotional excitement (!);  and the two-syllable word, funny, was smoothly slipped in.  And there was that catchy rhythm that marched forward in common time:  left, right, left, pause, left, right, left, pause.  This educational experience went on page after page, day after day, book after book.

     If you realize that pretty much the entire baby-boom generation was nurtured on this (may I say it?) drivel, you may have some understanding why things have turned out for them the way they did.  When the Boomers took to the streets of San Francisco (and elsewhere) a few years later, they were chanting slogans like "Peace and love," and "Give peace a chance."  At least they had gotten beyond "Peace, peace, peace! Oh, oh, oh!  Love, love, love!"  Which I, at least, would call progress of a sort.

     All this does not justify writing a post, except for what caught my eye in the comments section of the post -- a joke.  No doubt it is an old joke -- joke, joke, joke! -- but I had not heard it before.  Here it goes:

     A first grade teacher gets out of her class at the end of a school day and heads for her car.  She notices that she has a flat tire.
     "Oh, oh, oh!
     "Look, look, look!
     "Damn, damn, damn!"

     Thought you'd like it.

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