Love them or hate them... I have yet to find a lukewarm response to the rhyming picture books by Dr. Seuss (a penname for Theodor Seuss Geisel). I've heard them denounced as drivel, and I've heard them fondly quoted by others who enjoyed them with their children, or as children themselves.
Dr. Seuss books loom large in my own early memory of snuggling in my mom's or dad's lap, laughing at absurd, made-up words and devouring the details of the colorful pictures. I remember reading Fox in Socks to our eldest, over and over, until we both had it memorized. Our middle daughter still remembers Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now! My own favorites as a child were One Fish, Two Fish, and McElligot's Pool. The latter stimulated my imagination with its exploration of underground waters, running to the sea, teeming with an astonishing wealth of aquatic life. Maybe I should say "imaginary underground waters," as the boy in the tale is fishing in a puddle filled with castoff junk. Just like the boy, I found unending enthusiasm and excitement in the exploration with each new reading.
These aren't necessarily the kind of books you'd use to teach a child to read, especially if you're using phonics-based instruction. The books are more designed to fit the whole-word model, with a limited vocabulary (though I don't know quite how Dr. Seuss' made-up words fit that model). As a matter of fact, one of Dr. Seuss' more famous titles, The Cat in the Hat, came about when Houghton-Mifflin asked the author to write a primer for new readers, using a set vocabulary of 225 words. I remember watching an interview where he said he was in despair, not knowing what in the world he'd do with this hodge-podge of words. He began to look for two words that rhymed, and found "cat" and "hat" on the list. The rest is history.
On the other hand, you (like me) might have a student who doesn't quite fit the phonics mold. Two of our daughters learned to read fairly painlessly with phonics-based methods. For the third, phonics never quite clicked. She can use phonics principles now, as a teen, to sound out a word, but in learning to read, she tended to memorize the look of words rather than the component parts. For her, books with controlled vocabulary (like those in the Beginning Readers series) were important tools in gaining reading confidence. Though it went against the grain for me (I was sold on phonics – the method had worked beautifully with her two older sisters), eventually I gave in and supplemented our phonics with the whole-word approach. Just when I thought I had reading instruction figured out, this youngest daughter taught me that I had a lot yet to learn.
I found that each of our girls was an individual when it came to learning to read. It sounds like common sense, but it was a revelation to me. As a product of the public schools, I was under the impression that children learned a set of skills based on their grade level, which was determined by their age. Our first daughter fit the mold: She learned to read somewhere around the age of six or seven. I was alarmed at the whole-word approach at her school. At a parent-teacher conference, her teacher showed me a workbook with annotations that indicated our daughter's reading ability. She'd substituted the word "jacket" for the printed word "coat" while reading aloud, but this was "okay because it showed that she understood the material." Though we were a year away from deciding to pull her out of school and take charge of her education, I sent off for a phonics program. It wasn't long before she was sounding out words and clearly understanding what she was reading.
I'm glad she was my first guinea pig! Our middle daughter learned to read at age three. If she'd been first, I would have been seriously bothered by another child learning to read at age six, and completely flummoxed by our third daughter's much later reading. Thankfully, by the time our third daughter came along, I'd heard enough advice from veteran home educators about how children are all different in the way they learn, and that forcing reading instruction on a child whose brain wasn't ready for it yet was a formula for dyslexia.
Our youngest showed no signs of reading readiness by age six, though she enjoyed having others read aloud to her. I tried the phonics program that had worked with our eldest. No dice. I tried the program that had worked with our middle daughter, different from the one I'd used with our eldest because our middle daughter had not enjoyed the earlier program. That one didn't work for her, either. I tried still another program, and then I put the materials on the shelf. Six months later, we tried again. She'd learn new material but forget what we'd already covered. She just wasn't ready.
Every six months, I'd try again for a week or two, and each time I'd end up quietly putting the phonics program away, until finally when our youngest was nine things began to click. Even then, it wasn't the phonics programs that taught her to read. She learned, instead, by following along in a well-loved book while listening to it read aloud or dramatized on audio CD. Repetition was the key to her learning, but for her brain to absorb the material it had to be repetition in context, not stringing letters together to make words.
I had her sight tested early on, by an eye doctor who was familiar with developmental problems associated with reading. It turns out our youngest was far-sighted during those crucial early years, which made close work such as reading more difficult. Reading glasses made (and still make) a difference for her, but readiness (brain development) was the key to success.
There's a piece of advice I give to friends whose children are just learning to read. I don't know where I originally heard it, but it follows educator Ruth Beechick's ideas for achieving fluency in reading. How do you get to be a good reader? You read lots! When each of our girls was just beginning to be able to put words together, we'd go to the library every week and check out a stack of nonfiction easy readers in a subject they found fascinating. These usually had colorful photographs, large print, and not very many words on a page. One week we might check out all the fact-based picture books we could find on cats. The next week it might be insects. The next week it might be earth-moving equipment, transportation, or construction. We'd read through the stack together. Often I'd find them sitting in a quiet place, poring over the pictures and sounding out the text.
Because of varied learning styles and rates, this was different for each of our girls. For our eldest, it happened at about age seven. Our middle daughter devoured stacks of easy readers before she was four, and by the time she was six, was reading at a high school – and soon college – level. Our youngest was ready for "fluency training" somewhere between the ages of ten and twelve.
If she'd been in a classroom, expected to learn to read along with others her age, she would likely have been labeled. She might well have felt inferior to the others who learned to read at the "right" age. I've heard people talk about feeling stupid, having been in such situations. Now, as a teen, she reads fluently, especially if she finds a book piques her interest. Academic reading is still something of a struggle, especially if it's at all dry or boring. In any event, she does not label herself as "slow" or "stupid" and she can read what she needs to read, or wants to read, just fine.
We never used Dr. Seuss' books or other fictional early readers for reading instruction. They seemed better suited to reading aloud together, giggling over the silly stories and talking about the pictures. Our girls really didn't find them interesting enough to have to work at reading, unlike the fact-based picture books. Thus Dr. Seuss' books fell in the "fun" category for us. Some were better received than others. The absolute favorite that we can all agree on is How The Grinch Stole Christmas, the cartoon version narrated by Boris Karloff. That one became a holiday tradition, revisited long after the other Seuss books in our library got packed away in a box, outgrown but not forgotten.
Interestingly enough, none of our girls cared for The Cat in the Hat or its sequel. They found the anarchistic Cat and the chaos that resulted during his visits to be frustrating and disturbing. They had no interest in seeing the movie based on that title, and even as teens express strong negative feelings about the Cat, though they still extoll the joys of the Fox (the one in socks) and other stories.
Books by Dr. Seuss have remained in print for over 50 years, and they show no signs of losing their popularity. While you might not use them to teach a child to read, they do seem to have staying power in terms of reading aloud together, and fond memories, years later.