44: The Myth of Automaticity--Why Whole Word Won't Work
Kids are supposed to recognize
Which is so much easier said
Whole Word Presupposes An Impossiblity
During the last dozen years the Education Establishment has stepped back from Whole Word,
or pretended to, and retreated to a mixed-bag approach called Balanced Literacy. This is the official position in many public
In this shift to Balanced Literacy, the Education Establishment pretends there is much greater emphasis
on phonics. Isn’t that progress? In fact, this claim is often a lie. That’s because children may be forced to
start reading by trying to memorize --with instant recall--the 220-word Dolch List. While there may be far fewer Sight Words
to learn in total, all of them just happen to be at the very beginning. Sight Words are thus a bridge that children have to
cross to reach the land of reading. Many don’t make it to the other side, and end up illiterate or dyslexic.
Thousands of websites, experts, and schools categorically state that children must master their Sight Words. Typically,
these claims make it seem easy to achieve the magical skill called automaticity. Easy? Sure, easy for some, like gymnastics
or speaking fluent Russian. I would counter that only people with exceptional memories can attain automaticity. For most people
this goal is a distant mirage (as I’ll prove).
What we’re dealing with here, it seems to me, is a truly
outlandish swirl of quackery, at the center of which is the Myth of Automaticity.
I: WILD CLAIMS ON THE NET
First, in case you’re not familiar with what’s out there, let’s look
at 7 random quotes from the Internet, where parents are endlessly lectured about the glories of Sight Words. Mastering them
is not only necessary--we are told again and again--but doable and even fun. (If you’ve seen this stuff, skip ahead.)
1) “One of the most important goals in teaching young students to read
is making sure they are completely proficient with Sight Words.”
2) “Because these Dolch Words are
used to hold thoughts together, these sight words must be recognized at a glance before a child can read with confidence.”
3) “Here are the Dolch word lists, the 220 most common words and 95 additional nouns in children's reading books,
in alphabetical order. Dolch words, or sight words, provide an excellent base for reading at an early age.”
4) “Students who learn these words have a good base for beginning reading. Many of these words cannot be sounded
out because they do not follow decoding rules. These words must be learned as sight words.”
50-75% of all words used in school books, library books, newspapers, and magazines are in the Dolch Basic Sight Vocabulary
of 220 words...[T]hese words must be recognized at a glance before a child can read with confidence.”
“Sight words are words that are recognized by sight, without having to sound out, use picture clues, or use other strategies
to figure them out. Sight words efficiency enable the student to read with greater fluency. An over dependence on phonics
and ‘sounding out’ greatly hinders fluency, which in turn affects reading comprehension. Effective teaching approaches
insure that sight words are mastered.”
7) “Sight word development is an important part of learning
to read. Sight words are words that good readers can instantly recognize, without having to figure them out. Smooth readers
can’t really afford to stop at every word and try to puzzle it out: knowing a set of sight words by heart allows them
to move through a sentence more quickly...Ideally, readers should be able to recognize sight words in under a second.”
Note the incessant atacks on phonics. Note that the ideal--about 60 words a minute--is very slow. Note the surreal
use of the word “must.” We must be 18 to vote. We must run the 100 meters in less than 10 seconds to be in the
Olympics. We must have perfect pitch to be a great singer. We must end world hunger.
recognize certain words “at a glance.” Or what? Or else, evidently, they never learn to read, which is the end
point for millions of children. Okay, just what is it exactly they “must” do?
According to one Ph.D. expert: ”Automaticity is defined as fast, accurate and effortless
word identification at the single word level (Hook and Jones 2002). Skilled readers on average will display very predictable
and consistent responses. They should be able to recognize and process simple or common words in approximately 275 milliseconds,
a bit more than a quarter of a second.”
Another expert declares: ‘We adults must help children build
foundational reading skills to an automatic level. Good readers do not think about the words on the page. Good readers have
practiced to the point that they can rapidly and effortlessly discern words. Consequently, ‘thinking space’ is
freed up, and this allows a good reader to focus on what the words mean, rather than what they say. It is ridiculous to ask
kids to remember lots of rules when they are trying to learn to read. They must automate many, many words, so, over time,
with lots of practice, they can become experts readers.”
A third expert says: “Reading sight words
is important in developing effective reading skills. Sight words are the words that readers recognize in an instant. It is
as though their eyes and brain take a snapshot and there's an instant match.”
Here’s the problem. The
typical child can quickly recognize several dozen designs, of any type. But recognizing several hundred is very difficult.
And several thousand is usually impossible, even after years of effort.
Snapshot? At a glance? Automatic?...All
this sounds to me like alchemy. Mix lead with the eye of a newt and the blood of a virgin, when the moon is full, and you
will create gold from lead. I’ll argue that, for the great majority of children, success is not an option. Lead remains
THE PROBLEM WITH AUTOMATICITY
Automaticity might be possible with a small set of designs, for example, our numbers 1,
2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. You can probably recognize them in .25 seconds, as the expert asserted, and read a long series
at that speed.
But let’s consider a slightly larger set, for example, 50 photographs of famous people
that you personally select. Your favorite people. Have someone shuffle the deck and deal the photographs. Can you name them
in a quarter-second? Some but probably not all. More crucially, can you name 10 of them in 2.75 seconds?! Or all 50 in 13
seconds?? The so-called expert has implied that such speeds are possible, but I suggest that’s where the sophistry starts.
A second’s hesitation on a few photographs makes such a pace impossible.
Okay, how about at only one per
second (which is much slower than reading speed)? I bet you won’t be able to name them at even that leisurely speed.
More generally stated, I suspect it would be a rare person who could manage it. Note that you may get every name right (an
achievement in itself) but still not be able to keep pace. Response time is the problem. You can know the name of someone
or something for years; but still blank on it for a few seconds. (I believe that explains why "whatchamacallit"
and "thingamabob" are two of the most commonly used words in spoken English.)
Still more ominously:
for reading purposes, 50 is a bare beginning. Let us consider a still larger set, for example, 200 UN flags. Do you think
you could memorize these flags so that you can name them “at a glance” at the speed of one per second? Again,
I think it would be an exceptional memory that could name these flags at that speed (which would be fast on a quiz show such
as Jeopardy but very slow for reading).
point is always the same: naming a word is not the same process as reading a word. Imagine a chart with 20 famous logos, the
Nike swoosh, etc. And a printed list of the corporate names. Reading the names will happen quickly and reliably in a few seconds.
Naming the logos will always take longer, which is why Sight Words can't compete with Phonics.)
All of this stuff is easy to test. My thesis is that you would find an elite group of memory-athletes
who can achieve “automaticity” in naming a large set (500, let’s say) of photographs, flags, sight-words,
or other categories of designs. But average kids would not achieve such proficiency. At which point a humane scientist (or
educator) would declare Whole Word unsatisfactory for the teaching of reading to the general population. (Dr. Samuel Orton
famously suggested as much circa 1927).
But our Education Establishment is best described as a political cult
with occasional bursts of scientific pretension. The official doctrine for six decades was that all kids could memorize 50,000
words with automaticity. A sick joke. A reminder, if anyone requires one, of the vast absurdity that our educators are capable
of indulging in.
Now the official doctrine is that kids can and MUST memorize the Dolch list of about 300 words.
Experience shows, however, that even this tiny group of words is a huge challenge, which can take several years. And at the
end of this time, the kids are just beginning! We have to ask: why not spend a year learning to read properly? Then you’re
done with it!
Keep in mind that each English word appears in a nightmare of MULTIPLE FORMS (lower case, UPPER
CASE, italic, handwriting, different typefaces, etc.). So the small list of 300 Dolch words turns out to be more like 1000
designs, operationally speaking. (And consider the vast amount of drill, drawing, flash-carding and testing that would be
required if schools actually intended their students to memorize all these designs. But schools more or less prohibit drill
and memorization, which renders the entire project a fantasy. Furthermore, many of the same schools encourage Invented Spelling,
which would seem to defeat the possibiity of ever learning a particular design.)
Here is an expert quote which reveals how incredibly slowly the Dolch process unfolds: “As
people become more fluent readers, the list of sight words become a bit more difficult. A person reading on a first grade
level will be learning sight words like after, when, thank, and every. A person reading on a second grade
level will be learning sight words such as would, does, don't, which, their, and those. A person reading
on a third grade level will be learning sight words such as seven, eight, together, and laugh. As the person's
level of reading increases, the amount of sight words he or she can learn and retain increases.”
the simple words a child is learning in third grade. Obviously, this person is illiterate at the age of nine or ten. Little
education can take place, which is precisely the Holy Grail that John Dewey and company sought.
Automatic naming of even 300 English words is a big hurdle for most people. But this central
difficulty is not the crux of the problem.
In pushing Dolch Words, educators have engaged in something truly bizarre,
a sort of linguistic segregation. They are splitting the English language into two languages, which the child is forced to
read using different techniques, alternatively, back and forth. The result is a mental confusion, a cognitive schizophrenia,
which has devastating implications for many children.
Here are some quotes from the web. Note the casual way these
people have divided English against itself:
A: “Emerging readers are familiar with the concept of sight
words because they are words that are presented separately from other words that build on phonics or sound-letter relationships.”
B: “First, they contain the core subset of the English Language which is necessary for basic communication. Second,
many of the words do not conform to the usual rules for English spelling, and hence must be memorized to be recognized and
C: “Skilled word recognizers have developed internal cognitive structures that
are different from decoding skills. Students with poor reading fluency or lacking in automaticity are limited because they
read less during an amount of time, which can end up reducing the amount of material read, which in turn have an impact on
learning vocabulary and content.”
Internal cognitive structures that are different? Isn’t
that as good a description of dyslexia as any other you’ve heard? And this difference, this schizophrenia, is what wrecks
a child’s progress. The brain is not sure how to process each new word on the page. Dolch
Words appear to "vaccinate" some children against fluent reading.
This next quote presents all the alchemical elements in full flower:
D: “Even though English dictionaries
list thousands of words, we tend to use the same words over and over again. These are words we know so well, we read them
without any hesitation, we know them by sight. Most, if not all schools have lists of sight words students need to master
by kindergarten, first and second grade...Helping your child learn sight words will give him or her a huge advantage when
learning how to read. Experts agree, an eclectic approach is best when learning to read. Sound words out, use picture clues,
everything helps. But, do not leave out one very important piece of the reading puzzle... Sight words! It can be so frustrating
for a young child who is learning how to read to sound out almost every word or guess by looking at the picture. When a child
knows a word by sight the struggling is gone, the child becomes delighted in himself and becomes confident. The results are
a child who wants to read more and who really enjoys reading.”
And here is the killer quote: “Over
50-75% of the most commonly used words are found in the 'Dolch List' below. When students, especially those with Dyslexia
or language learning disabilities, focus on the Dolch words, confidence and reading ability improve.” All proponents
of phonics maintain that it’s the sight words that cause dyslexia in the first place!
From 1930 to 1995, English was said to be a language of Sight Words, almost a million of them,
that the unhappy student has to memorize as graphic designs. Well, except for the occasional photographic memory, this approach
was typically an impossibility. The Education Establishment, ever opportunistic, abruptly threw this idea under the bus. No
apologies for those fifty millions functional illiterates we inexplicably have, no sympathy for the million dyslexics who
just seemed to come from nowhere. No explanations, no nothing. We just don’t do it that way anymore.
we have Balanced Literacy, which means that most English words have been restored to the category where they always belonged:
phonetic words. Almost all but not all. In a clever tactical retreat, educators have created a sub-language which allows them
to abandon sight-words but keep them. Crucially, this improvised sub-language turns out to be the gateway language. Children
have to endure an ordeal by nonsense. Many don’t make it.
QED: The Education Establishment, in a delightful
bait-and-switch, abandons Whole Word but maintains it in a place of honor.
Some of the companion articles on this site are:
“40: Sight Words--The Big Stupid”
"42: Reading Recources"
Deitrick Price 2011