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44: The Myth of Automaticity--Why Whole Word Won't Work

Kids are supposed to recognize
sight-words instantly!
At a glance!
Which is so much easier said
than done.


The Myth of Automaticity

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 schools.

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. 



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.”

5) “From 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.”

6) “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.

Children “must” 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 lead.

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).
(The fundamental 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.”

Look at 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 recalled correctly.”

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.

Now 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" 


© Bruce Deitrick Price 2011