SIght-Words remain biggest problem in reading
Mar 13, 2013 English Language Teaching (ELT) 2927 Views
Ever since progressive educators introduced sight-words into American public schools in 1930, the country has been wracked by high levels of illiteracy. It is not just a useless pedagogy, it is a dangerous pedagogy because it creates cognitive damage such as dyslexia and ADHD.
The USA is not the only victim of sight-words. New Zealand, Australia, and the UK are also suffering.
Many clever sophistries are used to support this dangerous pedagogy. One of the more common arguments is that English is not really phonetic, therefore sight-words are necessary. You will then hear the lament, oh, if only English were like Italian and Spanish. Those languages, we are told, are so regular and phonetic, children can learn them quickly.
There are two big lies here. First of all, even if you want to be real picky about it, English is still 98% phonetic. For all practical purposes, it’s truer to say that it is 100% phonetic. English is an alphabetic language. Each letter is pronounced in a specific way (or ways). That is the essence of being a phonetic language.
The second big lie is revealed by this fact: sight-word fanatics have tried to push their dangerous gimmick even in Spanish-speaking and Italian- speaking areas. Yes, it’s true. This shows that they have no good arguments. They simply want to subvert reading. What other conclusion can we come to?
You can go on Google and find English-Spanish Dolch lists: pairs of words in two languages that the child is supposed to memorize as graphic designs. Not likely. The result will be illiteracy in both languages.
That’s what our public schools do to children coming in from other countries. But I’m not aware that sight-words were actually used in Spanish-speaking countries.
So it was completely shocking when a psychologist in Italy informed me that some schools there had used sight-words to teach Italian. Yes, completely phonetic and melodious Italian. The idea of teaching Italian sight-words is so bizarre, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would try such a stunt.
But the psychologist informed me that Italians are now dealing with cognitive problems not seen before; the appearance of dyslexia; prescriptions for Ritalin; and all the other malevolent manifestations our Education Establishment created in the United States.
This psychologist is part of a large group that has formed to resist this foolishness. I’m proud that they contacted me for suggestions on how they might wage this battle.
All ed schools in America continue to teach the sophistries that caused us so much difficulty: no one method is best; there is still a need for sight-words; and some words are high-frequency and should be memorized before children try to learn to read phonetically. None of that is true.
The bottom line is precisely what Rudolf Flesch explained to the world in 1955. (If you have not read “Why Johnny can’t read,” please order a used copy on Amazon and read the first chapter.) Nothing has changed.
Sight-words are the gangsters of reading. They bring nothing to the table. They take everything away.
There are a few phonics teachers who accept the notion that sight-words might be okay now and then. But why take the chance? Sure, a cold now and then is not a big deal. That does not mean that colds are desirable. It’s safer to eliminate sight-words entirely. Sight-words -- and the very concept of memorizing words entirely as graphic designs--should never enter a child’s mind,
Real phonetic reading starts with memorizing what might be called sight-letters. Children have to see a B, for example, in all its different typographical forms and know immediately it’s a B and is pronounced a certain way. There are only 26 sight-letters to memorize. It’s quite a doable project in a few months when a child is four. Then they go to the sounds of the letters, then to the blends. If the child is trying to memorize diagrams in the middle of this process, everything will slow down. Some people have good visual memories and their brains will shift toward seeing the holistic or global word. Then they may be finished as fluent readers.
BA is two sounds that blend to become a third sound. That’s the magic moment in reading.
In the USA, as in any other countries plagued by sight-words, there are two basic strategies to pursue: campaign to get rid of every last sight-word; second, parents can teach their children to read before the children go off to school.
In this regard, please see “54: Preemptive Reading -- Teach Your Child Early.”
FINAL NOTE: do not confuse sight-words with vocabulary words. Sight-words are learned in a one-dimensional way, as visual objects only.
Vocabulary words are words you know how to pronounce and read phonetically, how to spell, what they mean, and possibly some other associations that help you remember them weeks or years later. The challenge with vocabulary words is remembering many thousands of them. This is possible precisely because we know so much information about each word.