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Dr. Seuss and literacy: 60 years since ‘The Cat in the Hat’

Roxanne Owens at DePaul University offers reading tips for parents, kids

Roxanne Owens Dr. Seuss children's literature expert
Roxanne Owens, associate professor of elementary reading at DePaul University, discusses how Dr. Seuss’ ‘whimsical, outlandish’ tales keep the joy in reading for children and parents. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
CHICAGO — Sixty years ago this March, Dr. Seuss put a hat on a cat and revolutionized children’s literature. “By rearranging simple words into whimsical, outlandish tales, Seuss made reading fun for children,” said Roxanne Owens, associate professor of elementary reading at DePaul University. When children find joy in reading, they’re more likely to practice the skills that develop early childhood literacy, said Owens.

To mark Seuss’ birthday and Read Across America Day March 2, Owens discusses Seuss’ contributions to literature and offers tips for parents to make reading a joy for their children.

“If you can get children to like reading, that can make a huge difference in their education,” said Owens, who has taught in DePaul’s College of Education for 25 years. “A child needs to associate reading with warmth, nurturing and success — not being told what he’s doing wrong,” she said.

Cartoonist and author Theodor Seuss Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, knew how to draw young readers in, said Owens. When “The Cat in the Hat” was published in 1957, most books in schools were structured, she explained. Standbys like the “Dick and Jane” books used foundational sight words – “she,” “he” and “it” — but lacked plot and weren’t particularly exciting to read, according to Owens.

Seuss took those sight words, the first words children memorize, and turned them into rhyming classics like “Green Eggs and Ham.”

“They’re very simple words but they’re so creative and fun that it made children want to read them,” Owens said. The illustrations in Seuss books also help children develop visual literacy skills.

Literacy includes listening, speaking, reading and writing, and it’s important to develop those components as a child grows,” said Owens. 

Tips for bringing joy into reading for kids

Finding pleasure in reading creates motivation, explained Owens. “If children aren’t good at reading, they for sure don’t want to do it,” said Owens. To avoid this cycle, parents can follow the PIECE method. “I tell parents that the reading experience should be pleasant, interesting, engaging and challenging enough,” said Owens. She offers these tips for keeping the PIECE when reading to children:

  • Pleasant: Enjoy being with each other, meaning that reading is your time together. Keep your focus on that.
  • Interesting: Read about something your child is interested in, whether that’s dogs, planets, cooking or something else.
  • Engaging: Choose a book that will engage your child’s imagination — use voices, puppets or even homemade props.
  • Challenging Enough: Choose a book that is right at or just above your child’s reading level. You want the child to be able to understand what you’re reading.

Owens notes that reading together is not a good time to quiz your child or to make it into a vocabulary lesson. “Reading in and of itself will help your child build skills,” advised Owens. “Children who read and are read to are constantly exposed to new words, new ideas, new possibilities. Not to mention correct spelling, grammar and the elements of a good story,” she said.

Reflecting on Dr. Seuss and his legacy, Owens calls his books “timeless.” “There are many lessons to be learned and much wisdom to be gained from the books but the main reason Dr. Seuss’ books remain popular today is that they are just darn fun to read,” she said.


Roxanne Owens

Media Contact:
Kristin Mathews