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40: Sight Words -- Dolch Words -- The Big Stupid
This thing has many aliases:
Whole Word, Look-Say, Whole Language, Balanced Literacy.
Today, Dolch Words and Sight Words are popular names.
Probably the most accurate name is Memory-Method, as we’ll see...
By whatever name, this gimmick hurts children.

Sight Words -- The Big Stupid

Many long books have been written to explain why Whole Word is the ideal way to teach children how to read.

This short article will explain why those books are wrong, why Whole Words, Sight Words and the rest don’t work, and why as a consequence of using this unworkable method, the US has 50 million functional illiterates.

Whole Word requires that students memorize words as shapes, designs or configurations. Whole Word is memory-intensive, hugely so. As such, it’s fine for the idiot savant or the person with a photographic memory. For the ordinary child, it’s a pedagogy that doesn’t lead to reading. And what happens when a child does poorly and complains? There’s little sympathy. The presumption is that a non-reading child must be defective (i.e., learning disabled, dyslexic, etc.) That’s when the nightmare truly begins.

Adults who have become fluent readers tend to assume that reading is as ordinary as breathing. They can’t recall a time when they did not read; they don’t remember what those first days in school felt like. As a result, they do not grasp how difficult and stressful Whole Word can be. I would suggest that it is this divide--this lack of empathy and understanding for pre-literate children-- that protects our Education Establishment from the wrath of the public. And thus the scam has continued for 75 years.

So my first thought is that I would like to take you into the child’s mind. I want you to experience the difficulty of trying to memorize thousands upon thousands of sight-words. (This is the crucial point: it doesn’t matter whether you are memorizing flags, trees, insects, cars, electrical symbols, types of dogs, houses, logos, military insignia, movie stars, famous monuments, or sight-words. Several dozen is doable. Several hundred is hard work. A few thousand is nearly impossible...And yet somehow, in the face of common sense, our elite educators were able to pretend that words are a special class, a sort of pixie dust, and all a child had to do was look at a word several times, and mastery was assured. Frank Smith, chief evangelist for Whole Word, asserted that humans can learn 50,000, even 100,000, sight-words. An absurd claim; even the smartest Chinese struggle to memorize 20,000 of their sight-ideographs. But without this claim, Whole Word would be dismissed out of hand, as it should have been.)
Now, I want to ask you to regress with me. Let us pretend we are five or six years old. We do not know any letters, syllables, sounds. We’re little kids, off to our first day at a public school. We are surrounded, of course, by English words. The shapes look like this: ldfht, tmfhg, qlp, tshxw, htpg, rdctn, dbsrdm. Sort of creepy, aren’t they? All those nearly identical little sticks, curls, and zig-zags. And ldfht, we are told, is the same as LDFHT but not the same as ldhft??! No way!

Our teacher points at the first shape (ldfht) in the list and says, “That means book. Maybe you can remember it by all the tall shapes--they resemble pages, don’t they?”

The zanies pushing Whole Language like to say that English word-shapes are like faces or cats, and all you have to do is glance at them and you’ll remember the names forever. Smith compares word-shapes to crockery, antiques, cars, and pets. It’s so easy to remember a new cat, right?? In fact, remembering the names of even 25 cats would be a major undertaking. So our teacher is being realistic--remembering designs is hard work; to make it easier, we look for visual hooks or distinguishing features, such as the “pages” in ldfht. Trouble is, English words were never designed to be memorized on sight. So next we are staring at tmfhg, which the teacher pronounces “house,” and we know, with gloom and doom abounding, this won’t be easy because there’s not much to work with...

And after a few months, it dawns on us that our teacher actually expects us to memorize hundreds of designs almost the same as the first ones shown: dfth, tfclf, gtpf, tdfhg, thvlfht, jmfhg, qplp, tscxw, htpg, rdctn, dbs, dmlqp, ljpq, tflcf, gqpf, tdkhg, thvrht, jmjr, nhg....And to name them with “automaticity.” Ohmigod.

At this point, because I’m an ordinary kid, I give up and resign myself to a life of illiteracy, low wages, and crime, like tens of millions of other kids before me. But you are very smart and eager to impress the teacher. So you really try. You look carefully at each word, just as our teacher instructs. You note tall shapes, shapes below the line, round shapes, lines with dots and cross bars. You analyze...and find clever little clues to help you remember each configuration. For example, here’s what you do with street: there are two tall lamp poles and several cars and people passing by. Bingo! You’ve got it. When you see this word in a story, there is a very good chance that you will burst out with “street.”

What ingenious assists will you find for other first-grade words, such as not, help, sister, talk, why, three, boy, help, look, one, play, blue, run, down, go?? What is there about help that makes you think of “help”? What is there about blue that is “blue”? Point is, this kind of design analysis is very helpful but it requires effort, intelligence and lots of creativity. You have all this, but how many other children would?  (Ideally, you would draw these configurations over and over again. That’s how the Chinese memorize their ideographs. But American educators stand foursquare against drill and rote memorization!)

We know there are people who can look at hundreds of paintings and rattle off the names of artists: “Degas... Picasso... Delacroix...” What do we call such people? Connoisseurs. And how do they achieve their mastery?  They look really closely, and at great length, at each painting, slowly assimilating all the many details that distinguish one artist or painting from another -- design, colors, subject, style. Even so, the number of connoisseurs who can rattle off more than 1,000 names is probably a fairly select group. We see now that Whole Word requires little children to become connoisseurs of English words. But 1,000 is chump change. To be literate you need at least 10,000 words. To function in college, you probably need a minimum of 50,000 words. (English has almost 1,000,000 words and names.)

You see that your task is much like climbing Mount Everest. Here’s more bad news. Paintings stay the same--big and interesting. But words are small and shifty. Will you even recognize LDFHT? No pages! Or STREET--no tall poles and small people! All English words come in several forms and if you study the details, these forms can appear quite different. Furthermore, we have handwriting; we have italic versions; and we have hundreds of exotic typefaces that will play havoc with all your clever little mnemonic tricks.

The internet is overrun with sites hawking Sight Words and Dolch Words. On one of these sites someone laments, “Just because students read a word on a list doesn’t always mean they can read it in a story.” The writer sounds mystified, and miffed. This is pathetic. Of course they can’t. Just the way that you--obviously a smart person if you are reading this--can’t always remember the famous actor’s name in Star Wars, or that famous book you intended to read, or that fellow in accounting you’ve said hello to a dozen times. Even though all these things recently passed through your mind! Think what these little lapses would do to fluent reading! Memory is often slow; it is often unreliable. (That is why, about 5000 years ago, some very brilliant people invented phonetic language. Each word contains reminders of how you say the word. And little children can learn to read by the end of first grade.)

But how many years will it take to memorize 10,000 word-shapes, even if someone can? Many years! Well into high school or college. What happens to your education during all that time? It’s severely retarded and restricted. You can only read books with CONTROLLED vocabularies (i.e., not real books). Know what’s really unsettling? Even if you memorize 10,000 sight-words, there’s another 100,000 you might run into at any time but still not recognize. Whenever you read, you live in dread and tension that you will crash into a strange word. You can guess at it of course but you can’t read it for sure....Because, in a very real sense, after all that effort and marathon memorization, you still cannot actually read!

What you’re doing is recognizing, identifying, or naming. You are, as noted, a connoisseur of words. But you are pulling up the names from inside your memory. Real readers retrieve the information from inside the words. You see now Whole Word’s central folly: it jettisons all the advantages of a phonetic alphabet, and converts English words to the visual equivalent of flags, faces and felines. In Whole Word, you must bring the names to the word-objects, otherwise the word-objects will surely remain nameless! Just as an art connoisseur must attach the name to a painting, or the painting will stand there silently laughing at him.

Reading, real reading, is lightning fast. But naming things--even at Jeopardy speed--is actually rather slow. That’s why kids stuck in Whole Word schools will fumble, hesitate, sweat, and look miserable.

I’m sorry this took so long, but it’s important. Once you internalize the utter impossibility, for almost all children, of memorizing thousands of English words by sight, then the entire edifice falls down. And with it, most of the claims made from 1930 to 2010 by our so-called progressive educators. Lies and more lies. Should people so incompetent or so dishonest be allowed near a school?  

Once you internalize the utter hopelessness of memorizing thousands of English words by sight, then you will feel in your own heart the misery of the 50,000,000 functional illiterates, the anguish of the one million who were turned into dyslexics, the suffering of the tens of millions of parents who believed they had created a retarded child, and all the other pain and chaos created by the Whole Word crowd.


   I have 55 educational videos on YouTube, ten of which deal with reading.

The video linked here tells the story in three minutes:
Each video has a different emphasis, style, music, etc.

  To see all the titles, click here

  30: The War Against Reading
33: How To Help A Non-Reader To Read
37: Whole Word versus Phonics
42: Reading Resources
44: The Myth of Automaticity
(44 deals with problem of memorizing even small number of sight-words)   
48: Sight Words??!!  You Still Teach Sight Words??!!
54: Preemptve Reading

Here's a funny little way to understand all of this.
Each letter in our alphabet has a
distinctive shape, sound, and history.
Phonics says: start with these smallest building blocks:
memorize your "sight-letters"
so that you can read them with automaticity.
Whole Word says, no, let's SUBMERGE and OBLITERATE
those shapes, sounds and histories
inside a larger, more cumbersome shape.     
 So four designs (s-a-i-l) become one design (sail), which makes no more
visual, logical, phonetic, historical, or mnemonic sense than slai or asil.
Welcome to dyslexia and a life of bad spelling.  
In short, sight-words' sin is skipping the obvious first step: sight-letters. 

1. Imagine children in the early grades struggling to memorize a few hundred Sight Words. Are there any proper names on those Dolch Lists, any historical names, any geograpical names??? No, all that is pushed back. These kids, even in fourth grade, can't read a map of their country or their city. Their education is a void.
2. Foreign languages were driven out of the early grades. Why? That's supposed to be the best time. Think about it. Children learning French phonetically would wonder why they couldn't study English the same way. Even worse, if you want to be real cynical about it, children learning French, etc. would be more likely to crack the phonetic code in English. And learn to read.
3. Many children don't learn handwriting or penmanship anymore. Why? Writing letters (a, b, c's) helps children learn to read--directionality, shapes of letters, constructon of words. Indeed, Montessori stressed writing before reading. But there's a problem in the Whole Word classroom. Handwriting creates yet another version of those designs on the Dolch List--e.g., bright, BRIGHT, and then the script version. Children would be even more confused.
QED: To keep an unworkable pedagogy, the Education Establishment was (and still is) willing to sacrifice geography, foreign languages and handwriting.

Turn a page of print upside-down and look at it in a mirror. (Stop yourself from mentally flipping the words back to their ordinary appearance.) Pretend you have to memorize the SHAPES in the mirror. Note how alien and unfriendly they look; note how much alike they look. This is exactly the hostile visual jungle that young children are supposed to tame. Remember that in the stricter versions of Whole Word, the child does not know the names of letters or that words have syllables. The teacher points at a configuration, says, “This is ‘house,” and children are supposed to memorize the word as a graphic design. Stare at the designs in the mirror for a few minutes. You will understand why so many children became illiterate or dyslexic. 
Some of the founding documents, so to speak.

The dogma circa 1950. In "Helping Children Read Better," Professor Paul Witty writes: "The young child...must learn that marks like chair, mother, bravery, sweet and OK are really symbols for things and ideas...He reads groups of words. He doesn't read words individually--and then put them together to make sense. He grasps phrases, then sentences, that express a complete thought...Teaching the preschool child the ABC's so that he can spell out words isn't generally a good idea....Learning to pay attention to individual letters will only slow up the child's progress later." [Note the interesting use of the word "marks," as though chair is a design made with a single stroke.]

Circa 1973, Frank Smith was brilliant at the flabbergasting finality: "Fluent reading does not normally require the identification of individual letters or words."

Ken Goodman, one of the founders of Whole Language, always claimed: "A story is easier to read than a page, a page easier than a paragraph, a paragraph easier than a sentence, a sentence easier than a word, and a word easier than a letter." This silly assertion provides pretext for not teaching children the smaller parts--letters and words. Presumably a collection of stories is easier to read than any individual story. And a library is easier to read than any book in the library.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: This article describes the Whole Word doctrine as it was preached in the USA from 1931 to the present. Not all publlc schools embraced the whole doctrine. Starting in 1995, the doctrine came under increasing attack as reading scores in California fell below those of Mississippi! The Education Establishment responded with a watered-down version of the doctrine, known as Balanced Literacy, supposedly a mix of phonics and Whole Word. Here again, the doctrine was interpreted differently in almost every school--some schools clung to Whole Word, others nearly abandoned it completely. So we are seeing the slow death of Whole Word. What we are not seeing is a deathbed confession from the Education Establishment or the International Reading Association (IRA) that this doctrine was bunk from the start and is responsible for creating tens of millions of functional illiterates. What we are seeing, I suspect, is a slow unfolding CYA. At this point, it's still acceptable for many schools (and websites) to push the basic 220-word Dolch List. The argument is that these are special, odd, or irregular words that must be learned as Sight Words. That's what these same people said about the entire language 20 years ago. Why would we trust them? I recommend Samuel Blumenfeld's analysis that it's very confusing and stressful to ask a child's mind to go back and forth from phonetic words to graphic designs. That's how you get dyslexia, many experts think. Not to mention, it takes longer to memorize 220 Dolch Words (a year or two) than it does to learn to read properly in the first place!
Just to be clear, all the phonics experts I trust agree that there is no need for a single Sight Word. At present, the 220-word Dolch List combined with Invented Spelling seems to be the main tool for keeping literacy low.

Sight Words -- Dolch Words -- The Big Stupid  © Bruce Deitrick Price 2009-12