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The Cat in the Hat

"The Cat in the Hat" is a fun read that goes nowhere.

With parents absent on a rainy day, two bored children suddenly find their home invaded by a human size cat that proceeds to show 'tricks' that make a mess —all told in Seuss rhyme.

Full Review

The Cat in The Hat and its sequel The Cat in the Hat Comes Back offer the same Seussian rhythm & rhyme found in Oh, The Places You Will Go, but lack the positive content. Some educators and parents believe Dr. Seuss books to be excellent primers for reading, but even he came to question that view. Certainly, children enjoy the rhymes,and quickly learn to recognize and memorize the words. The problem is that they may well end up memorizing and reciting, rather than reading.

Dr. Seuss As Reading Primer

When a child learns to read by memorizing words, which is more easily done with Seuss, the child uses the physical appearance of each word as a whole, to prompt his memory to obtain the right word. As he learns, he may appear to be reading when in fact he is reciting.

This method is identical to the “Look-Say” approach to reading, which requires that a child memorize the appearance of each word, rather than its phonetic components. Instead of learning 43 phonetic sounds, he must memorize thousands of words as whole symbols to reach any reasonable degree of literacy. This is perhaps harder than learning Chinese pictographs.

Dr. Seuss came to grasp the damage this Look-Say method caused:

“They think I did it in twenty minutes. That d__ned 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.(Quoted here, here & here)

Chinese children learning Chinese pictographs have a slight early advantage, compared to children learning English words by the Look-Say method. The pictograph approach uses pictographic shapes that suggest their meaning, and have families of shapes. Such relationships in the shape of the words do not exist in English until one has a substantial grasp of the language.  The slight advantage quickly ends, as the symbols proliferate.  Phonetics then becomes the most sensible reading tool, by far.

No effective reader truly uses word shape to read —they recognize the letter relationships so well that words are “rcognzabl evn whn mny ltrs ar misng.” Contrary to some e-mail circulars, this is not proof that phonetics are not necessary; it is proof of the enormous power of phonetics. For a reader to understand, he will find that the contracted words contain only a very few phonetic options, and his experience does the rest.

Phonetic reading enables a child to recognize the few key elements (43 phonemes) of the English language. Armed with these elements almost any word becomes pronounceable, and common roots are more immediately apparent. He is now on his way to actually grasping the interplay between these roots, and the network of concepts that make the Universe available to his understanding. (Concepts are the ideas for which words serve as labels.)

The secondary benefit of that network and its accompanying vocabulary is, of course, communication (see Reading and The Growing Mind). With “Look-Say” there is no early hierarchy. Every new word, and every new variation of a word the young reader already knows, is a mystery until he memorizes its appearance. His conceptual ‘universe’ is flat, and enormously limited as a result.

Certainly the Seuss books can be used as part of a learn to read program, but parents and teachers should spirit them away at the first sign a child is reciting rather than reading.

For a more complete description of this issue see Dyslexia: Man Made Disease by Sam Blumenfeld at http://www.home-school.com/Articles/BlumenfeldDyslexia.html (VM does not necessarily support all aspects of Blumenfeld’s argument.)