Why Sight Words Don\\\'t Work
Jan 14, 2009 Pronunciation/Phonics 2971 Views
I recently got a long, anguished letter from a couple with a five-year-old in kindergarten. The school’s curriculum was built around learning 76 Sight Words. The child was not making progress; the parents were miserable. They had decided they must homeschool their child.
The couple said they had explored the Internet and found an overwhelming support for Whole Words, Sight Words, and Dolch Words. I was amazed, and disappointed, that this pedagogy continues virulent. My own research convinces me that Flesch was right 50 years ago, and that virtually no children become fluent readers using this approach.
One of the main factors that keeps the scam in play is that our educators have created a swamp of sophistries and jargon. It is difficult for even the most intelligent parents to understand the pros and cons of the competing reading pedagogies. I’ve written many articles about this subject, but it remains a constant frustration that I can’t boil the reading wars down to a few paragraphs. I decided to try again, but this time I would create a comparison chart, Whole Word on the left, Phonics on the right. This chart, which is printable, is now the centerpiece of “37: Whole Word versus Phonics” on Improve-Education.org.
What follows is just the left side, the five paragraphs about Whole Word, which is the more mysterious part of the discussion for most people:
WHOLE WORD: Whole Word, it is claimed, can teach children to read 500 sight-words in first grade...Even if this pace can be achieved, these students know only 6000 words by the end of high school, and are only semi-literate. Judged by its own claims, Whole Word doesn’t work.
PROGRESS IS SLOW: In fact, few students can memorize even 300 words per year. This difficulty is confirmed all over the Internet by lists of Sight Words that have THIRD GRADE students learning simple one-syllable words such as: bring, clean, cut, done, draw, drink, eight, fall, far, full, got, grow, hold, hot, hurt, if, keep...Imagine nine-year-olds who can’t read such words. Their education is at a standstill. All school books must be dumbed down.
IMPOSSIBLE DEMANDS ON MEMORY: Whole Word requires you to memorize words as SHAPES, one by one, as you would remember faces, houses or logos. It’s hard work. The work never ends....Only the smartest Chinese can memorize 20,000 of their ideograms, but Whole Word promoters expect you to memorize 50,000 or 100,000 English words. In short, Whole Word expects ordinary people to accomplish a feat that's possible only with a photographic memory.
MANY OBSTACLES: English words are minimal in design and hard to remember. For the child, English words look like this: thmfhg, ldfht, tshxw, htpng. The child has to find VISUAL HOOKS in each of these graphic shapes that will provide instant recall when the child sees the shape in a book....Another problem is that English letters change from lower to UPPER case. Consider: dale/DALE. Only someone familiar with English would guess that you are seeing the same four letters in both words. (Additionally, English words appear in many type styles.)
SUCCESS IS RARE: Millions of people peak at 1,000-2,000 sight-words, a level of progress called “functionally illiterate.” Some people with powerful memories actually learn to read and reach college; but they always report that reading is hard work.
There you have it, my most aggressive condensation so far. For the Phonics side, and more disucssion of why Whole Word can’t possibly work, please see "37: Whole Word versus Phonics," which is one of five articles about reading on Improve-Education.org.