Why Sight-Words Sabotage Reading and Start Dyslexia

Posted 46 months ago|4 comments|3,481 views
Phonics vs. Whole Word
Written by
Virginia Beach, VA
There are two ways to teach children to read.

!) Whole Word enthusiasts say that children must memorize the shapes of words one by one, just as the Chinese memorize their ideograms. This is the wrong way.

English has far too many words for this approach ever to be considered.

Even if an industrious child could memorize 2,000 word-shapes (which is extremely difficult and takes MANY years), that child would still be functionally illiterate. The vast majority of the English language remains unknown.

Just as bad, words the child supposedly knows are rarely known with automaticity. Sight-word readers typically stumble, hesitate and sweat as they try to remember the meanings.

Furthermore, every English letter and word appears in a bewildering number of variations. Even if a child memorizes "bright," it's not likely that the child would recognize "BRIGHT."

Whole Word is a Ponzi scheme. It creates an illusion of early success. A child might memorize 50 words, and seem to be reading. The bitter reality, however, is that things never get faster or easier.

There's more bad news. After a few years, the child is increasingly adrift in a maddening vortex of words, some recognized, many half-known and slowly recognized if at all, and many thousands more not known at all and necessarily guessed at. Each sentence is a minefield, and might never be truly deciphered.

Note that the child speaks English all day with perfect fluency. But printed English has become an alien blur, an oozing wound. Words actually seem to slide on the page. Where there should be meaning, there is only mystification and pathology. Educators call this state dyslexia and typically try to pretend that the child was born with it. A more honest name might be schoolitis. Schools that use sight-words invariably create dyslexia. The USA has 50,000,000 functional illiterates and a million dyslexics.

Blame sight-words. The essential fallacy here is that children are taught to NAME words, not to READ words. Introducing this fallacy into the schools is best understood as a colossal mistake. Or a crime of epic proportions.

2) Common sense: English is a phonetic language and obviously must be taught phonetically. That is, children are taught that printed letters represent sounds. Which is all that phonetic means.

Learn the 26 letters and the sounds they represent, and you are halfway home. Learn how two or three letters can blend together to form a new sound. Letters make syllables; and syllables make words.

Learning to read is like learning to play the piano. You learn the scales. You take baby steps. You practice. Each week you can do a little more. In a few months you are playing little songs. (Or reading little stories. Every highly regarded phonics program makes the same claim, a short lesson each day for four months will teach a child to read. Within a year, they can select their own books. Any good program plus patience, poetry, and the passage of time equals success.)

Phonics appears most difficult at the beginning. There seem to be a lot of little details and rules to deal with. This alleged difficulty was used by the "experts" to beat up on phonics. The main initial argument for sight-words was that learning phonics was boring and hard work, especially for the slower kids. So what was the idiotic answer? Make them memorize the English language one word at a time. Talk about boring, hard work that never ends!

Ironically, it turns out that the slower kids seem to be the ones that most need these details and rules. According to Joan Dunn, a teacher: "They want to be taught step by step, so that they can see their progress. The duller they are, the more important and immediate is this need." 

That's a powerful insight. Simply recall a subject that was VERY difficult for you; and you immediately know how most ordinary people want to be taught most subjects. With regard to reading, the more verbal kids can just pick it up, as musical kids will pick up music. But the slower kids desperately want to know the phonics details because those details give the child control over print. English has its inconsistencies but far too much is made of them. Typically, sounding out words will get you to the word or close. Sight-words, if you're not totally sure, are like faces you see in a crowd--do you know that person? Did you ever meet that person. How can you be sure??

The astonishing thing for me when I look at videos on YouTube and the internet generally is that there is so much material still pushing sight-words, and in a very smug way, despite the horrific fact that we have 50,000,000 functional illiterates. Isn't that number obvious proof that the "experts" pushing sight-words don't know what they're doing? (The experts might counter that they are now pushing sight-words mainly in the early grades; but once the whole-word reflex is developed, real reading becomes much more difficult!)

QED: Get sight-words out of the schools. Test the various phonics programs against each other to find the best. Hello, Bill Gates? But even bad phonics is better than a "good" sight-word curriculum.

As many schools insist on being obtuse, parents should protect their kids by teaching them letters and sounds early on. The basic idea is to familiarize a child with how English works. If the child later attends a school with phonics instruction, it will be very easy. If the child attends a school using sight-words, the child has been inoculated to a large degree. Once the child understands that letters on the page stand for sounds, that child is safe from the worst ravages of sight-words.

For more on why sight-words are a dead-end, see "42: Reading Resources" on . This article includes a list of phonics programs.

All three YouTube videos deal with aspects of this discussion. (Titles left to right are: "Preemptive Reading -- Teach Your Child Early"; "Why Sight-Words Prevent Reading and Create Dyslexia"; "The Biggest Crime in American History")

46 months ago: I teach dyslexic children 3 languages- English, Malay and Romanised Mandarin.
I teach English using both sight words and Phonics. This is simply because English is not a orthographically consistent language unlike Malay and Romanised Mandarin. Both Malay and Romanised Mandarin use the same 26 alphabets as does English.
My initial few articles in my blog explains in detail why I teach English using both sight words and phonics.

Luqman Michel
20 months ago: Causes Dyslexia? Really? And you wish to site what source that proves this?
Your statement that no one could ever learn to read English on a sight word basis is misconceived. The Chinese language has thousands of "sight based" characters that match English in its diversity, and while Chinese has radicals, you are more or less left to memorizing sets of pictures that have no connection to each other whatsoever. Yet, in today's China, a great majority of Chinese (at least everyone I've met) are quite literate in Chinese. I've not met a Dyslexic Chinese person yet. Chinese, by the way IS as equally verbose as English.
That being said, I want to point out that as one masters reading on a phonetic basis, the natural progression IS to sight word from phonics reading. In fact, it is a well known fact that most people only need the first and last letters of a word to guess at what the word is. That's not phonetic reading, friend, and we have many word puzzles based on this.
Research has shown that the earlier children begin to read, the better their reading comprehension overall is. This presents a bit of a problem in particularly young students as phonetic reading is simply impossible for them. Under the age of four, most children cannot separate the letters in a word because their brains aren't developed to that stage yet. Children simply see a picture, much like you might see an apple but cannot really separate it into different parts. Properly taught, sight words also teach spelling along side the words. When the child is old enough to see the separate parts of the word, the child is able to recognize that it is made up of the phonetic characters of the alphabet. At this stage the teacher would then proceed to teach spelling rules and move to a more phonetic lesson.
Lastly, sight words were used to teach me reading. I consistently scored highest in my reading comprehension, even scoring several grades higher than I was in. My spelling didn't suffer either.

Virginia Beach, VA
20 months ago: The article is very clear so I won't repeat it, except to add one interesting point. If you are serious about teaching ideograms, sight-words, etc., you have lots of drawing and copying. Chinese and calligraphy are inseparable. Public schools expect kids to memorize sight-words mostly by looking at them.

You're a sophisticated person. You would learn to read no matter what. But all your sophistries now serve to shelter the Education Establishment so they can continue to get way with their nonsense. It's the ordinary kids who are most damaged.

Here is a sequel: "Reading Wars Still Damage Many Children."

20 months ago: That all being said I at least want to commend your efforts to improve education, though I personally feel in this particular case they are a bit misguided or misinformed.

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