K-12: Sight-Words are Hoax Words

Oct 3, 2019 by

Hundreds of websites broadcast the same misguided message: children must memorize Sight-Words.

This message is false. Probably the most aggressive falsehood is that such memorization is easy to do.

 One popular site proclaims this malarkey: “Because many Sight-Words are phonetically irregular, tend to be abstract, have limited visual correspondence, or even easily understood definitions, students must memorize them to read quickly and fluently.”

Note the casual tone: “Students must memorize them.” The school certainly wouldn’t ask children to do something difficult or impossible, would it? Yes, it would! And therein lies the essence of the hoax. In the context of reading, “memorize”  means instant recall or automaticity. Achieving this sort of  mastery is tedious and difficult. Many children never reach 500 or even 200 Sight-Words, a piddling amount in a language with a large vocabulary. 

After years of work, many students are still illiterate, and often suffering from depression, ADHD and/or dyslexia. Why? Because the task—far from easy—is  most accurately described as hopeless and humanly impossible.

 Consider carefully what English Sight-Words look like to first-graders:

kdkr   fmc   ntfh   dxv   fhwp   pbx  qrnx  yhljk  

 The children do not typically know the alphabet, which is considered irrelevant. Children are not pronouncing the letters. They are memorizing whole shapes. That’s why this method is called Whole Word. They try to memorize complex graphic designs made up of weird scratchings. There is no logic to any of it. (Another problem is that every English word closely resembles another 10 English words.)

  How many such designs do you think a child can memorize in a week? The actual goal in many curricula is tiny, a testament to the difficulty of the project.

 The goal is typically: three to five per week. Obviously the schools know from experience that more than that is not feasible. Three a week means only about 100 in a  school year.

 Even if the child, presumably with a near-photographic memory, has mastered the words perfectly, the child can read only paragraphs made up entirely of these words. It’s almost a sick joke. (Were the children taught phonics, they would be reading – really reading – before the end of the school year.)

Memorizing Sight-Words is not easy: that is more than half of the hoax right there. The second part of the hoax is that this slow, tedious process rarely leads to literacy. 

Every bit of instruction seems to imply that the experts know that children can actually learn to read by memorizing Sight-Words. That is a lie. The experts know from decades of experience that most children will never learn to read with Sight-Words. So there is the complete hoax: first, the process is extremely difficult; second, it is usually doomed to failure.

Here is another way to know that this method is never intended to lead to literacy. Look at the Dolch words for fifth-grade; you will see that these are still fairly easy but essential words, for example, class, heart, grade, none, ocean, ice, train. What sort of reading were they doing in the previous years without access to such words? Not until  they reach the sixth grade do they learn admire, love, ad, except, move, fright, light, sigh. The students are 12-years-old and still semi-literate. Except for a few very bright students, total vocabularies are well below 1000 words, often far below. 

Sight-Words reduce schoolchildren to the level of American tourists managing to get along in an exotic foreign country. The tourists recognize the words for bar, restaurant, police station, bathroom, etc. They know the logos for nearby stores and products. But only a professor of education would argue that these tourists can “read” the foreign language.

Another fascinating aspect about Dolch words is that there are no proper names. Where, in the Dolch universe, do children learn George Washington, South Carolina, Napoleon and the thousand other proper names  typically encountered in geography and history? They don’t!

 Remember that Sight-Words, introduced in 1931, were essentially the law of the land for 70 years, without any phonics at all. Sight-Words guaranteed not only illiteracy but thoroughgoing ignorance. That is still a common result.

 Nowadays, public schools tend to mix Sight-Words with phonics, often called Balanced Literacy. The child now has one technique for part of the language and another technique for the rest of the language. Both techniques present some difficulties, so the child remains in a schizophrenic dilemma: how do you read the next word? You have to make a decision on what type of word it is before you can decide which technique to use. 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress routinely states that the majority (66%) of American fourth-graders and eighth-graders are below proficient. Now you know why. 

Education officials claim that one in five students have a language-based learning disability such as dyslexia. Now you know why.

[Bruce Deitrick Price’s new book is “Saving K-12, What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?”]

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