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48: Sight Words??? You Still Teach Sight Words??!!
Dolch Words??? You Still Teach Dolch Words??!!
(For an introduction to these issues, please start with "42: Reading Resources") 

Sight Words??!!
You Still Teach Sight Words??!!

A reading coach sent me a letter with this question:

"I also would like to know how you respond to teachers

who are married to sight-word drills

and describe their rationale as,

'Well, there are just so many words

that don't follow any rules.'"





Enter main content here


First, let’s consider a man coming from Thailand; he doesn’t speak or know one word of English. When I think of him trying to memorize all the phonics rules and exceptions, I can imagine how hard it would be for him to learn to read English. HE HAS NOTHING ELSE TO HELP HIM BUT THOSE RULES. In this context, the complaints about how English spelling doesn’t make sense, and the words don’t follow any rules, may have some weight. I’ve wondered: perhaps a case could be made that it would be helpful for him at the outset to learn sight-words such as SUBWAY, TAXI, RESTAURANT, HOTEL, BAR, RESTROOM. But even here, I suspect, phonics experts would say that this approach might give a short-term payoff that would hurt him later. (Truth is, you’d probably have to interview some foreigners who’ve been here many years and learned English. I don’t know what they’d say.) 

Here’s what I do know: it’s truly bizarre that US educators, when discussing what their young American students can do, seem to be talking about foreigners who are helpless in English. It’s a fallacy and a sophistry to conflate the two categories of people, when they are miles apart.

Consider a five-year-old American kid. English-wise, he is many years ahead of the Thai. He is what anthropologists call “a native speaker.” He routinely says such things as, “Hey, Dad, how did Brett Favre end up with the Vikings? Is he going to play next year? What’s so great about Minnesota?” Think how many years it would take us, as intelligent adults, to reach that sophisticated linguistic level in Thai, Czech, or whatever. Additionally, as Rudolf Flesch reported, this child recognizes about 15,000+ words and names. Probably he uses 5,000 words and names. Surely, he would already know 99% of the words he might encounter in a typical first-grade setting. He uses most of these words on a weekly basis! He already knows all the pronunciations (and is sublimely indifferent to whether they supposedly follow rules or not). 

Here we arrive at the fundamental point: the boy has a vast store of knowledge to help him deal with text. All he needs is a little help to connect with the printed versions of all these words ALREADY in his head. Phonics is that help. 

Sight-word proponents, it seems to me, pretend that first-graders are much less knowledgeable and self-sufficient than they are. Worse, they do this to justify bringing in a bogus pedagogy that instantly makes everything worse.

Here’s the remarkable truth. Based on all the anecdotes I’ve read, about half the average first-grade class will eventually figure out how to read, no matter what is done to them (even sight-words). I suspect you could spend the first year or two singing songs, telling stories, and reciting poetry, with occasional pointing at letters or syllables, and most kids would figure it out. There are many cases of spontaneous reading, so to speak. I talked to a woman at an art show who said, “The first-grade teacher told me c-a-t, cat, I got it, and started reading 100 pages every night until I was out of college.” Of course, this woman is exceptional but she confirms my sense that the gap between pre-reading and reading is not so great as our Education Establishment likes to pretend. After all, don’t all phonics programs basically promise to teach kids to read in about 100 days? Just three or four months. (But it takes YEARS to master just the 300-word Dolch list; and doing this doesn’t produce a reader. The Education Establishment has embraced a method that moves glacially and often ends in illiteracy. Naturally, these misguided experts have to belittle the competition. And they have to exaggerate the difficulty of what they are trying to do.)

Note: The half of the class that won’t learn almost routinely is exactly the half most damaged by sight-words! These slower kids need systematic instruction in phonics. If they don’t get it, they are likely to become “functional illiterates.” That is, Victims of Sight Words.

Contrasting the Thai speaker with the American kid dramatizes for me what exactly it is that make sight-words such a dangerous hoax. This method reduces the English-speaking American kid to the same level as the Thai who can’t speak one word of English. All the sophisticated linguistic knowledge that the American kid has acquired is taken from him. He has all these words in his brain, all these sounds, but he is prevented from using sounds, or looking for sounds, or comprehending sounds. (And that, I submit, is how the public schools routinely keep a third of fourth-graders from learning to read. It’s as though you took a bird and hobbled its wings, and made it get around on its feet: behold, the literacy professors would say, a better way to fly.)

The sophistry that the whole-word enthusiasts use is that the kid has to pronounce (sound out) a word exactly correctly or somehow he won’t recognize it or be able to read it. So these sophists put all their emphasis on the inconsistency of English vowels, etc. The picture they try to paint is that if the boy mispronounces a word 25% away from the correct pronunciation, he will sit there scratching his head saying, “I don’t know what it is.” That’s where the lie occurs. In practice, what usually happens is you sound out an approximation, and maybe another. You bracket each syllable; then you bracket it more tightly. You work your way toward the correct pronunciation that is waiting in your head! A pronunciation you have probably spoken or heard in the recent past.  

For young children, learning to read involves some cat and mouse, some detective work. But it’s logical and concrete; b-words don’t start with t-sounds. Even if a first-grader knows only that a word starts with a b-sound, that instantly reduces the choices by 90%. And the choices are narrowed each time you make a decision about a sound or a syllable. And with practice, the decisions are made more and more quickly. 

Ken Goodman and Frank Smith want children to pass up a whole galaxy of very obvious and useful clues, and instead use clues like pictures and context, which are very loose and unhelpful. Does anyone need a reminder of how silly all this is? You can take a page of ANY book or magazine, black out some random noun, and then show the page to smart adults and ask, can you figure out what that missing word is from context? Unless you have a gimme like, “The man took out a comb and tried to make his BLANK presentable,” you’ll typically find that definite solutions are impossible. Context and a buck will get you a cup of coffee.  (By the way, did you think the mystery word was “hair” or perhaps “beard,” or how about “son” or “daughter”? No, it’s “poodle.” Ken Goodman and Frank Smith want kids to guess. But guessing ain’t reading. Guessing is to reading what sitting down is to standing up. Guessing is another word for illiteracy. Sight-words don’t work, so guessing was brought in as a crutch. But guessing doesn’t work either. So you have two crutches in search of a patient. Your kid, if you’re not careful.)  

I apologize for not having a really succinct way of explaining all this material, even though I’ve been mulling it over for years. I kept thinking that, yes, the arguments for sight-words MIGHT have some grain of truth if we’re talking about a foreigner who knows NO English. But when we’re talking about American children who know lots of English, it just felt so wasteful and crazy. Sight-word advocates want to treat smart, articulate kids as illiterate foreigners, treat them as having no knowledge of the language, and make them learn to read English by a method that abandons all the assets they do have, and proceed in a manner that is alien to English, which is of course an alphabetic/phonetic language. 

And this method -- and here we enter a darker twilight zone-- requires massive rote memorization. Oddly, the Education Establishment is unanimous in declaring that rote memorization is evil and should NEVER be used. The way they slide around this inconsistency is to declare (okay, lie) that hundreds of graphic symbols can be memorized with little effort. So you have lies and sophistries on top of lies and sophistries.

Finally, it must be stated for the record that ALL English words follow lots of rules. The notion that there are words that “don’t follow any rules” is too witless to be called a sophistry; it’s merely a lie. But let’s just say for the sake of discussion that there actually is a word that doesn’t follow “any rules.” Let’s say, for an example, there is the word “hgqz” and it’s pronounced “lumberyard.” What would you do? You would have no choice but to memorize “hgqz” as an exception, as a sight-word. That’s hard work and an inconvenience. Fortunately, such bizarre situations are as rare as snow in Miami. But guess what. The whole-word theorists want to PRETEND that great numbers of English words (or ALL of them) are like “hgqz,” and that each of these words must be memorized as an “exception.” With this weird non-sequitur, drudgery and inconvenience are magnified a hundred times, and extended across the vast panorama of the English language. Predictably, many millions of Americans have found literacy too much work, and they simply gave up. 

Also keep in mind that "hgqz," if remembered by its spelling "h-g-q-z" is not actually a sight word. This lack of precision endlessly confuses discussions about reading. A sight-word is a design, a configuration, with no alphabetic content. $ and # are sight-words, we might say, that is, designs you memorize by their shapes. Accordingly, "hgqz" and "HGQZ" are two very different configurations. Here we see the insanity of trying to memorize English words as sight-words. But in the stricter versions of Look-say, Whole Word, etc, children were not taught the alphabet and were actually expected to memorize "cat" as a graphic design," not as "c-a-t." How many children would even guess that CAT was the same thing? And thus the Education Establishment was able to make millions of children illiterate.    

To recap: The key (and beautiful) point in this discussion is that the Thai visitor brings no assets to the table. He has no English words or sounds in his head. There is nothing there to connect to! So, let’s say he does memorize BAR so he can go out and find a bar. It might be handy. But don’t confuse this with reading. He knows BAR the same way most of us know the look of a Corvette or a grizzly bear. We can recognize and identify a shape that is out there in the world, so to speak. But the American child is a wholly different story. This kid has INSIDE HIS BRAIN a universe of words, sounds, and other information. He has a lot of clues and evidence to use when confronting a linguistic mystery. Phonics is thus the final piece in the matrix, the linkage between all the remembered pieces in his head and the printed pieces in a book. But Whole Word says, no, cordon off the stuff in the kid’s head, make it illegitimate, make him start over like a baby, like a Thai tourist forlornly wandering the streets of Manhattan in search of neon tubing shaped like this: BAR. 

Personally, I’ve become satisfied with the conclusion that the whole-word method is completely counter-intuitive and counter-productive. It’s not possible that smart educators could endorse it in good faith. Learning to read with sight-words is like starting a fire with water.



So why, I asked myself again, does it take so long to explain these things? Please keep in mind that the Education Establishment has kept this hoax (as I would describe it) in play for 80 years, roughly 1930-2010. The leading authorities have written books, textbooks, readers, training books--many, many books. (Most of these people are best-selling authors, either to the public or in the closed world of education schools.) In sum, there are 1000’s of pages of bean curd to refute. These experts have constantly changed the name and accompanying jargon. They have shifted the emphasis, and found new ways to justify a reading pedagogy that hardly works at all. The result is a morass of sophistries. If you solve one, you sink into another. So here we are at this very late date and there are actually hundreds of websites saying the very same non-truth: “There are just so many words that don’t follow any rules.”  


But look at the first Dolch lists (for pre-K, K, and first grade, a total of about 125 words), you will find: he, she, we, see, be, three, the, me.  They look alike; they sound alike; they are part of a huge cluster of rhyming words; they follow a lot of rules. How can anyone use these words as example of words that don’t follow any rules? 


Here is another delightful cluster from those Dolch lists: three, the, thank, this, then, there, think, they, that. These all start with a very distinctive th- sound. English has 500+ words descended from Greek that start with this sound, and another 500+ words descended from Anglo-Saxon that start with it. The French and many other nationalities have a lot of trouble making this sound (the tongue extends beyond the teeth). But once you know  that “th” indicates this sound,  you instantly become intimate with a huge family of related words that seem to me to follow a lot of rules. 


What the sight-word sophists do is focus on small inconsistencies and grandly announce: these words follow no rules. Here’s a parallel. Have you ever looked at a paint catalogue which showed 25 shades of blue? Surprising fact: all of those colors are blue. The differences are charming and interesting, but do not stop a color from being blue. Similarly, just because an “o” has several variations, the letter is still an “o.” You want a rule? Here it is: the English “o” usually represents one of three similar sounds--oh, ou, oe. Something like that. The nearby consonants usually represent one sound. Rules, rules and more rules. 


Let’s look for a moment at the quintessential event. You encounter some sort of discrepancy or inconsistency. What do you do? Well, if you’re smart, you do what English-speaking people have always done. You observe the inconsistency, isolate it in your brain, and remember the least amount of information necessary to make sure this inconsistency doesn’t cause a problem. You remember that in some words “i” comes before “e.” You remember that there are some words where “ough” is pronounced the same as “uff.” That’s tough stuff; but you deal with it in a sensible, minimal way. But if you’re in a whole-word class room, what do you do? You memorize each word-design one by one by one. Not just the part of the word that is the inconsistency. You have to remember the entire word. And note that you no longer know that there is an inconsistency, because you are not given any broader knowledge about words. The theory says you have to remember each sight-word one at a time. Graphic symbols by definition are one-of-a-kind. They are not part of a group. You have to do everything the hard way. 


Keep in mind another oddity or contradiction about the Dolch lists. These are supposed to be the weirdest, most inconsistent, most irregular English words, thus you have to memorize them as sight-words. However, these words are also clearly identified as the most common, most frequently occurring words. Almost in the same breath with the stuff about inconsistencies, we are told that if we know these ultra-common words we are halfway to literacy. But common words are precisely the ones we learn first, when we’re three and four. A typical child has probably spoken each of the Dolch words hundreds of times. Literally hundreds of times. These words are common household objects. The child knows how to pronounce the word and how to use the word and is comfortable with the word. So, when the child finally sees the spelling for the first time, the last little bit of the package snaps into place. It’s like being told that your uncle is named Georgio. You don’t question this, you just accept it. Is that not the way it was with all these common words when you were 3, 4 and 5? Children don’t know any rules so they don’t know that the spelling is breaking any rules. I have no memory of finding any of the little words odd or irregular. it’s when you’re in the ninth or tenth grade, and you can look at things a little more critically, you might notice discrepancies. My point is that the Dolch words -- the 300 most common words -- are almost a fait accompli by the time the child reaches first grade. It’s only the nuttiness of sight-words that stops the whole process and freezes things for years.


Finally, English is just mildly inconsistent and annoying. Almost all of the so-called problems are part of the propaganda campaign against phonics. There’s no lie those people won’t tell! If look-say had never been concocted, virtually everyone would be happily literate, not knowing they had somehow done something difficult. This was the case circa 1920.


This article runs parallel to "40: Sight Words--The Big Stupid."
It treats the same subject but with not that much overlap.
Also see "42: Reading Resources." 

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2010