Dr. Seuss and the Joy of Reading

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Ask any random selection of North Americans whose books they read as a child, and I guarantee that the vast majority will name Dr. Seuss. For many people, Dr. Seuss wasn’t just any author from their childhood, but instead was the man responsible for starting their love of reading. 

I was also brought up on Dr. Seuss books. My mother belonged to a book club that sent us a new Dr. Seuss book every month that we could read together. Even though my sisters and I have grown up, and most of our childhood things are gone, the Seuss books remain. Kept so that when we have children, we too can share a love of reading with them the way my mother did with us. 

Dr. Seuss books are famous for their colorful illustrations, fun rhymes, and rampant imagination. They are by far the most popular children’s books for native speakers, so why are they less used outside of the West when learning English? Let’s take a look at Dr. Seuss and what his books can offer your child.

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Who is Dr. Seuss?

Dr. Seuss was born Theodor Seuss Geisel on March 2, 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA. His first children’s book called “And To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street” was published in 1937. Although he is well-known now, he did not become popular as a children’s author until 1957 when he published “The Cat in the Hat.” 

Dr. Seuss is known today for his over 45 books and his collaboration in classic cartoon adaptations like the “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” 1960’s tv special. However, Dr. Seuss also represents a broad change in how books were written for children. 

Before Dr. Seuss, children’s books were primarily written as boring “look-and-say” books where children read short, stilted sentences and were expected to learn words as a whole. Instead of learning to decode a word with phonics, they learned to memorize whole words and their meaning. It was not immediate, but the works of Dr. Seuss would mark a shift away from these kinds of old-style reading textbooks disguised as stories for children.

Why Are Dr. Seuss Books Special?

When Dr. Seuss began to write “The Cat in the Hat,” he was given the challenge of writing an engaging Grade 1 book. He was limited to only 250 words, and those words had to come from a pre-approved list of words that schools said children needed to know. “The Cat in the Hat” became a best-seller because, unlike its predecessors, it was made with children in mind. Boring sketches were replaced with vivid cartoons, while boring, contrived sentences were replaced with an infectious rhyme scheme.  

With “The Cat in the Hat,” Dr. Seuss still had to adhere to the old-style of using pre-chosen words and simple sentence structures, but this would soon change. Even before Seuss, the tides had begun to change against the old style of learning how to read in favor of phonics. Seuss just showed how effective and profitable it could be to write a book that children actually wanted to read. 

As Seuss was given more leeway, he was able to move more and more into the fantastic. Although some would see made-up words as a problem, I think they are incredibly powerful for young learners. Seuss’s power was that he always put the child first. He wrote for their entertainment, not for what we believe is important for them to know. 

The Power of Made-Up Words 

Artwork of Thing 1 and Thing 2.

It can be very hard to sell the value of made-up words to parents teaching their children English. On the surface, it makes sense. Why waste time with words that aren’t real?

In the case of Dr. Seuss, it is very much worth it. At this point, the made-up words of Dr. Seuss are culturally important. Everyone now knows what a Grinch or a Lorax is. As well, many of Seuss’s stories have been made into popular movies or shows. Reading Seuss books can help your children become familiar with an important cultural touchstone for English speakers. Like classic fairytales or fables, Dr. Seuss books have become something that your child should know for a well-rounded English education.

Beyond their cultural relevance, the made-up words of Dr. Seuss have another advantage for learning English. They can help with phonics. English is not an inherently consistent language. It can be difficult for authors to use words in early English books that all nicely follow the rules so that children can learn our phonics patterns. Dr. Seuss got around this problem by making up his own words.

For example, in the Dr. Seuss ABC book, you can see sentences filled with words that use the letter that they are describing. For the letter Q, we get: “The quick Queen of Quincy and her quacking quacker-oo.” “Quacker-oo” is not a real word. But it is easy to say if you understand phonics. More importantly, it is a low-pressure environment where children can use their phonics without fear of really being wrong since there is no real word to get wrong. 

How Will Dr. Seuss Books Help My Child Learn to Read?

Not restricting himself also allowed Dr. Seuss’s imagination to go wild. He invented amazing machines and crazy animals that were all illustrated in such a way that children cannot put his books down. All of this means that not only do children practice their phonics with Dr. Seuss, but also they love to do it. If you can get them interested in reading, then nothing can stand in their way of becoming strong readers in the future. 

There are lots of books that have good illustrations. There are even more books that model good sentences and introduce useful vocabulary to your children. However, there are no better books than those written by Dr. Seuss to get your child interested in reading on their own. This should be your ultimate goal. 

Strong English skills start with strong reading. Strong reading skills start with a desire to be a reader in the first place.

What are the Best Dr. Seuss Books?

I think that any book you choose will be a good one. However, you should know that some Seuss books are aimed at very young readers, while others are slightly more difficult. It may be good to take into account where your little one is in their reading journey before you choose a book.

This is a personal list of my favorite Seuss books, and I am sure there will be many who disagree with my choices. They are in no particular order, just my five favorites in general.

1. Oh Say Can You Say

A book of tongue twisters that I loved as a child.

2. And To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street

This is my mother’s favorite Dr. Seuss book. We read it many times together, and so I have fond memories of it.

3. Dr. Seuss’s ABC

An amazingly inventive ABC book that is both fun to read and fun to look at.

4. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

The quintessential book of Dr. Seuss that takes something so simple and turns it into something amazing. Perfect for very young readers.

5. The Lorax

One of the Dr. Seuss books that tries to teach kids a moral. A wonderful story about environmentalism and greed. Even more important now than when it was written.

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Final Thoughts on Dr. Seuss

While focusing on how to teach your child English, it can be easy to forget how important your child’s interest in learning English is. Many of us just want to teach children like they are little computers. Only focussing on the words and sentences that we deem important. 

Dr. Seuss is a wonderful example of what can go right when your main goal is to make things fun. Set aside the rules, let loose your imagination, and you will be amazed at the progress your child can make. 

If there is one thing you can do to help your child learn to read, it’s to introduce them to Dr. Seuss and his wonderful worlds. Strong readers start as children who want to read. This is the gift that Dr. Seuss can give your children, a life-long joy of the written word. 

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