Phonics, Sight Words, and Literacy
Sep 13, 2010 English Language Teaching (ELT) 7021 Views
The Reading Wars have raged for more than 75 years--defenders of phonics on one side, promoters of Whole Word on the other. These two ways to teach reading are opposed and for the most part irreconcilable.
So here we have the Grand Canyon of education. Anyone teaching English needs some knowledge of the ideas on each side of the chasm. (This article will present both sides, explain why phonics is the right choice, and give you places where you can continue your own research.)
Whole Word (also known as Look-Say, Dolch Words, Sight-Words and several other titles) dictates that children should memorize the SHAPES of words, the designs, the configurations, exactly as you would memorize a Chinese character, weather symbol, electrical symbol, or a currency symbol. In fact, it’s easy to find the currency symbols on the Internet. Imagine you’re told to memorize the main 50 symbols, with instant recognition. I bet you will find this a difficult task. But keep in mind that 50 is almost 0 when you’re talking that the English language. To read the simplest newspaper, people would need to memorize several thousand words, at a minimum. So this is the mountainous task confronting children in the first years of school.
I’ve written a great number of articles pointing out the essential impossibility of this quest. Memorizing a few hundred sight-words and becoming a functional illiterate is doable. Indeed, the USA has 50 million functional illiterates. But memorizing more than 1,000 words...well, that is extremely difficult and unlikely. Only highly industrious people with near-photographic memories can do this. The ordinary student with ordinary motivation is simply destroyed.
Now I have a treat for you. The following long quote (which you can skip over if your are familiar with such material) is from a Ph.D. dissertation written in 2003. Every single cliché on the Whole Word side is set forth as though it is a self-evident fact. Not true. Each of these sentences is actually a theory, a claim, a dubious deduction, an exaggeration, a belief, indeed for some, a religion. On the internet you will run into the separate claims a thousand times, but finding them all strung together was startling to me, so here goes:
“Sight words are words that good readers may instantly recognize without having to ‘figure them out.’ There are two reasons why sight words are an essential component of good reading (Fry, Kress, & Fountoukidis, 2000): First, many of these words do not sound like their spellings might suggest, so ‘sounding them out’ would be unproductive. Also, a good reader really can't afford the time to dwell on too many words, or may lose the speed and fluency necessary for determining the author's message. Knowing high frequency sight words can help students avoid the frustration in reading. High frequency sight words are everywhere, many of these words can be in anything that children might read (May, 1998). If students know these words, they will benefit from that knowledge in whatever material they are reading. These small successes help build self-confidence and make reading more fun. Sight words are often the guideposts for comprehension of the entire sentences. Knowing the high frequency sight words is like learning to crawl before learning to walk (May, 1998). Another reason they are called ‘sight words’ is that many of them can't be sounded out. Students just have to remember how ‘sight words’ look (Lee, 2002). As mentioned earlier there is an agreement among researcher that word recognition is a forerunner to reading comprehension, and therefore, when a child has difficulties in both word recognition and comprehension, improving word recognition should be our priority (Spear-Swerling & Sternberg, 1994); if children can read words
quickly and easily, their reading comprehension will improve dramatically (Tan & Nicholson, 1997). The students’ poor grades in reading appeared to be resulting not from a lack of comprehension of what they read, or failure to master the skills taught to them, but from their inability to decode and/or recognize enough words to determine what was being asked on the tests themselves (Mayfield & Holmes, 1999).”
Sorry, that’s a bit long. But I wanted you to see the total confidence and smugness that this future professor brings to reading. Phonics experts would simply note that every one of these claims is mistaken. Also, and this is crucial, in the process of trying to memorize the shapes of words, a child will lose the ability to read phonetically. So genuine fluent reading becomes impossible. (Balanced Literacy pretends that mixing methods is good, but note that children must still approach reading through the hurdle of memorizing many hundreds of so-called Dolch Words. This project can take several years, during which time their educational progress is on hold. At the end, you have the ultimate Pyrrhic victory--you’ve learned a bad way to read.)
Now, on the other side, the first thing you should know is donpotter.net. Don Potter is a school teacher in Texas who has devoted his life to promoting phonics. His site contains all the documents, articles, speeches, even books, and everything else you can think of that has been published over the last century about phonics.
It’s quite remarkable how many really smart and earnest people joined the phonics crusade. Preeminent among them are Rudolf Flesch, Samuel Blumenfeld. and Siegfried Engelmann, three experts you can trust 100%.
Probably the best single item to read is the first chapter of the 1955 classic “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” If you have still greater interest, I would say the next best thing to read is Flesch’s entire second book, “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read” (1980). These books (available on Amazon) remain powerful and interesting because the Education Establishment continues to promote reading theory that doesn’t work.
If you’re in a hurry, and you want quick introduction to all aspects of this debate, please see “42: Reading Resources,” on Improve-Education.org. It includes a list of the most popular phonics programs, and references several other articles.
(Finally, I’ll tell a story that is still unfolding so this is a tentative report. Almost a year ago a schoolteacher wrote me and said, “I need to understand phonics.” Here’s the amazing fact: she had been an ESL teacher for more than 20 years. So I told her some items to read...A few months later she was using phonics in her work and had become a firebrand. She was trying to persuade the school system in her city to drop Whole Word. As of early September, 2010, the latest news is that the school board relented and the schools are going back to phonics and grammar. Point is, the Reading Wars are hot, and battles are still being won. My working thesis is that we can’t save the country unless we first save the public schools; and we can’t save them unless we first save reading.)