The Trouble with SIGHT WORDS!
While many children learn to read sight words very easily, others have a lot of difficulty memorizing words by sight. Memorizing is not an easy task for a large percentage of students in our schools. Unfortunately, our literacy statistics tell the whole story of a nation in trouble with reading skills.
In today’s classrooms across America, children are expected to learn to recognize and memorize hundreds of words before second grade, and yet, insufficient time and energy are given to decoding and word attack practice and instruction. The Dolch Pre-Primer Sight Word List (Pre-Kindergarten) contains 40 sight words, while the Primer Sight Word List (Kindergarten) contains 52 sight words. The First Grade list contains 41 sight words, and the Second Grade list contains 46 sight words. The Third Grade list contains 41 sight words. In classrooms where sight word reading is the main focus of instruction, many teachers instruct students to guess at unknown words by looking at the first few letters or by looking at the pictures. By third grade, students are expected to learn a minimum of 240 words by sight. This is a monumental task for students who have difficulty with memorization! This expectation that we ask of our children is like the equivalent of an adult being asked to memorize 240 Russian words, without knowing the code to their alphabet.
Teaching reading, based on the Dolch Sight Word Lists (or the FRY Sight Word List), is a sorely outdated approach, and should be retired in totality. The Dolch Pre-Primer List of sight words was originally made for pre-kindergarten children, which is not a developmentally appropriate task for 4 year olds. Most seasoned preschool teachers know that preschool children are not ready for formal reading instruction. Preschool children need to be learning shapes and numbers 1-10, exploring phonemic and phonological awareness tasks, and expanding their oral vocabularies. Many preschool children are not even ready to learn the alphabet letters and their corresponding sounds, as most four year olds are not developmentally ready or mature enough to learn such an advanced code. Further, the majority of preschoolers are absolutely not developmentally ready to memorize whole words.
In Kindergarten, children need to be learning the alphabet letters and their corresponding sounds. Learning the foundation of the English alphabetic code is vitally important for kindergartners to master, so they can be prepared to utilize the code in formal First Grade reading instruction. Yet, in most kindergarten classrooms, the alphabetic code is taught quickly, on a shallow plane, and as a separate entity to reading instruction. Unfortunately in most kindergarten classrooms in our country, a heavy focus is currently placed on sight word memorization en mass. While many kindergarten children are capable of learning to read a few words by sight, such as color and number words (red, blue, one, two), and important sentence fillers (like ‘the’, ‘and’, and ‘is’), modern kindergartners are being asked to learn to recognize by memory 100 or more ‘sight words’. Through this type of instruction, children are taught to believe that reading is all about the memorization of words.
In actuality, English is an alphabetic language with a sophisticated code. Students need to be taught explicitly how the code works. Letters make sounds. Sounds can be blended together to make syllables and words. There are 26 letter symbols that map to 44 phoneme sounds. How is that possible? Some letters can be combined to make new sounds. Some letters make more than one sound. Some letters make different sounds in various positions in words. Some sounds can be made by multiple spelling patterns. Learning the alphabetic code to our intricate English writing system takes years to master. Teachers in grades K-4 need to be devoted to teaching this code, thoroughly, to the point of mastery. Teaching children to memorize words by sight is not teaching reading!
Much research has been done over the past 20 years which has proven that there is an actual science to the teaching of reading. Through functional MRI studies, reading scientists know which areas of the brain respond to reading stimuli. The research from The National Reading Panel and The National Research Council on Reading conclude that a structured and explicit approach to teaching reading, through scientifically-based, evidence-based approaches, gleans the best results for all types of readers – including those with dyslexia and other reading disorders.
Our English language has 6 syllable types – 6 distinct spelling patterns – that tell us how to sound the vowel.
In a closed syllable (such as the word ‘cat’), there is only one vowel and the vowel is closed in at the end by one or more consonants. This pattern makes the vowel say its short sound. In the open syllable (such as the word ‘hi’), the vowel is NOT closed in by a consonant at the end, so the vowel is long. As children learn to recognize these patterns in words, they learn how to figure out how to sound the vowel (short or long).
Our language also has 12 distinct syllable division rules. Syllable division rules tell us where to divide the word into syllables. Once we divide the word, we can see the spelling patterns- or the syllable type – emerge in each syllable, and then, using the syllable type rules, we can figure out the pronunciation and the vowel sound. We can reverse these steps for spelling, by clapping the word into syllables, and then sounding out each syllable, and spelling the word according to that syllable type.
Why are schools teaching word-sight memorization in an alphabetic language such as English, when they can teach decoding skills? This is the crystalizing question! The human brain is incapable of visually memorizing all of the words in the English language. Our language has a code! It’s the alphabet! Let’s use it!
Eventually, many children who read by sight have problems reading advanced words in the upper grades, because they lack decoding skills. Science and history words become obstacles to their success. This scenario generally happens in third or fourth grade, but for some students, can be delayed into the middle school or high school grades.
Increasingly, schools are teaching easily decodable words as ‘sight words’. How many words that are being taught as ‘sight words’ are actually decodable? Research estimates that approximately 75% of the words in the English language fit into one of the 6 syllable types (or one of the 6 syllable type exceptions). That leaves only 25% of our language that actually needs to be taught through visual memorization.
Let’s look at the Dolch Sight Word List for Pre-Primer, and see which words are easily decodable:
Decodable Words: a, and, away, blue, can, down, funny, go, help, I, in, is, it, jump, little, look, make, me, not, play, red, run, see, three, up, we, yellow, you (32 of these ‘sight words’ words are easily decodable)
Sight Words: come, here, one, said, the, to, two, where (8 of these ‘sight words’ are not easily decodable, and should be taught as sight words)
Out of the 40 words on the Dolch Pre-Primer ‘Sight Word’ List, 32 of the words are easily decodable. To be able to decode those words above in the Decodable List, one needs to know the syllable types and their characteristics, and the syllable division rules. For example, the word ‘blue’ has a ‘bl’ blend, and the ‘ue’ vowel team. In the word ‘funny’, one needs to know how to properly divide the word (fun/ny), and one needs to know that the ‘y’ in the second syllable says long /e/. In the word ‘away’, one needs to know how to properly divide the word into two syllables (a/way), one needs to know that the initial vowel (a) is a schwa in an open syllable which makes the short /u/ sound, and one needs to know that the ‘ay’ is a vowel team which says long /a/.
These skills, concepts, and rules take time to learn, but are thoroughly worth teaching. Once students understand the rules, they can decode 75% of the words in our English language. (“Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime”….). A plethora of decodable reading materials, leveled by a structured and cumulative hierarchy of skill development, are available through Orton Gillingham curriculums, which are for sale in the general marketplace. These are The Lil’ Reading Scientists TM EASY PEASY READERS:
Instead of ‘pretending’ to read picture books and classic literature through memorization, and instead of guessing at unknown words in kindergarten, first, and second grades, students who know how to decode can actually read decodable passages at their individually targeted levels. Most children’s picture books are written at a third-grade-and-above reading level. Picture books are priceless for teaching listening comprehension skills and for laying the foundation for critical thinking skills, and they are a beautiful form of art and literature, but they are NOT appropriate reading material for early elementary grade students who are just developing decoding skills.
Controlled text is part of the Structured Literacy/Orton Gillingham Approach, for good reason. Controlled text allows students to practice the phonetic skill they are learning, and they provide students with reading material at their exact decoding level, thereby helping students to build confidence and decoding skills, not guessing skills.
The rampant teaching of sight words as a viable instructional approach to reading in the English language is failing many of our students across the nation. The memorization approach does nothing to impart the science of alphabetic reading to our students. One barrier to shifting our instructional approach to decoding-based instruction is teacher knowledge. Many or most certified teachers, including certified reading specialists, do not know the rules of the English language, and are not capable of teaching the English alphabetic code in-depth enough to be able to instruct our students in the structure of literacy. Orton Gillingham (also known as Structured Literacy) training programs are available now in many of our universities and colleges across the nation. For a list of these programs, see The International Dyslexia Association website.
To truly teach the skill of English reading, teachers must know the rules. Teaching children to visually memorize words in our alphabetic language is not the answer. When students are given the gift of decoding in the early grades, their skills and confidence multiply exponentially!
Jenelle Erickson Boyd, M.Ed., CDP, the Author of this Blog, is a Certified Reading Specialist and a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner through The International Dyslexia Association. She is an avid advocate for children with reading issues, a speaker at educational conferences, and a literacy consultant for schools. Jenelle is the author and creator of the Lil’ Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions TM, Orton Gillingham-based curriculum for children ages 3-10 years old. To contact Jenelle, email her at email@example.com.
To view the Lil’ Reading Scientists TM Literacy Curriculum (digital downloads and multisensory hard good materials), please visit our website at: https://www.lilreadingscientists.com/
Sample of the Lil’ Reading Scientists TM Orton Gillingham Products: