Did You Know a Clinton County Native Played a Critical Role in Reading Education in the US?

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While third grade students across Clinton County took IREAD standardized tests this week, they were continuing a long tradition of literacy and reading education that traces its roots back to the late 1800s in Johnson Township.

Zerna Addis Sharp, born in Hillisburg in 1889, taught first grade in her hometown, then in Kirklin, and later in Laporte, Ind. She went on to become a principal in Laporte before leaving the school system to become a reading consultant for publisher Scott Foresman & Company.

From Zerna’s experience, children had a hard time learning to read because the textbooks were not written in a way children could relate to.

”She used to go down and sit on the beach on the South Side of Chicago and listen to the kids playing,” her nephew Robert L. Sharp told the New York Times when Zerna died in 1981. “She noticed them saying, ‘Look, look,’ instead of one word, ‘Look.’ That’s how I understand the idea for the books came about.”

According to a Mental Floss article, Zerna worked with education theorist William S. Gray to develop a new kind of reading primer featuring average kids in a collection of short stories that gradually introduced new words through repetition and simple illustrations. The characters immediately became recognizable: Dick, Jane, baby Sally, Mother, Father, and a well-behaved dog named Spot.

While Zerna never wrote any of the stories for Scott Foresman, she oversaw their creation, including the basic plots and illustrations. Some estimates suggest that as many as 85 million first graders learned to read using Zerna’s Dick and Jane stories between 1930 and 1970.

While the series attempted to be religiously and racially diverse (both Catholic and Seventh-Day Adventist versions were written and characters were added who were African American and from other races and cultures), eventually the rapid cultural changes of the 60s, including the women’s movement and new teaching methods, caught up with Dick and Jane and the series was discontinued in 1965.

Zerna had retired in 1964, and she returned to Clinton County in her final years, where she died in 1981.

Dick and Jane have lived on, however. In 2003, Penguin Random House reissued several of the early readers. Also, several spoofs of the Dick and Jane series have been published over the years, including Fun with Kirk and Spock, a Star Trek parody; children’s book Dick and Jane and Vampires, about “a smiling bloodsucker who just wants to make friends”; and the adult version Yiddish With Dick and Jane, which provoked a lawsuit in 2005 by then-copyright-owner Pearson Education.

Thanks to Zerna Addis Sharp, Clinton County played and continues to play a big role in literacy education in the United States and in the lives of our own elementary students.

Good job on IREAD this week, third graders. See kids play!

Photo by liz west by Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License. Originally published at Clinton County Daily News on March 19, 2016.

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Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.