Why We Have More Than 40 Million Functional Illiterates

Hundreds of websites still casually assert what is probably the most destructive sophistry in the history of education:

The Dolch Sight Words [created in the 1940s] are a list of the 220 most frequently used words in the English language. These sight words make up 50 to 70 percent of any general text….Dolch found that children who can identify a certain core group of words by sight could learn to read and comprehend better. Dolch's sight word lists are still widely used today and highly respected by both teachers and parents. These sight words were designed to be learned and mastered by the third grade.

Even at a glance, you may see several problems.  Just because they were “designed to be learned and mastered” by the third grade doesn’t mean they will be.  The majority of children cannot master these words by any grade, if by master you mean name them with automaticity at reading speed

“Respected by both teachers and parents” is a slippery construction that conspicuously omits mention of “reading experts who conduct research.” 

Furthermore, even if these words make up two thirds of a text, that means a child cannot read every third word.  Nothing resembling reading can take place. 

Note that phonics instruction would allow the student to read every word by the second grade.  But the sight-word method promises that by third grade, the children will know a small subset of English words but still remain largely illiterate.  What sort of promise is that?

Even all that is not the full indictment.  Trying to memorize many graphic designs – and that’s what learning to read with sight-words entails – is virtually impossible.  The brain becomes cluttered with hundreds of partly memorized designs, all of which look quite similar.  There are children with photographic memories who can survive.  But let’s focus on the average student.  This child might not be able to memorize even 100 sight-words each year, or ever.  But the real flaw is that few children achieve automaticity.  Most are always wandering slowly in the forest, so to speak.  If parents understood how hopeless and painful this process is, they would never allow their children near sight-words.

So we need a way for parents to grasp viscerally that sight-words are a mission impossible for almost all children.  Consider:

Dolch words for first grade include think.  Fluent readers of English see the phonics in this word; they see the logic of this word.  As a result, such readers do not realize how utterly bizarre and difficult this word looks to first-graders told to memorize the design as a sight-word.

It’s important that everyone see this word as the first-grader sees it.  In fact, there is a simple way to do this.  Here are the same letters arranged in other ways: hinkt, inthk, nihkt, htnik, khtni, tkhin.

From the point of view of visual memorization, they are all equally difficult.  For experimental purposes, pick one of them and memorize it (as a shape, not a series of letters).

One site actually prints the official dogma: “Many students do not need extra practice with the Dolch words, as they learn them by reading them repeatedly in context.”

This nonsense is repeated to parents, who then expect their kids to acquire these words the same way a dog picks up burrs in the woods.  It’s not so easy.  If schools were serious about memorizing word-shapes, children would draw them over and over.  Flashcards would be used relentlessly.  But keep in mind that our schools constantly campaign against rote memorization, which is said to be a great evil.  Meanwhile, they’re asking children to commit rote memorization on hundreds (and in Whole Word’s heyday, thousands) of English words.  So you know they are hypocrites.  But let’s stick to the task at hand.  Consider the words again.  I bet you can’t pick out the one you memorized:

itkni, itikn, hkitn, kinht, nktni, ntikn.

That’s a bit of a trick, because these are six new configurations made from the same group of letters.  The point is, English letters and words look a lot alike.  There is not much to work with.  And imagine the nightmare of longer words.

In the process of trying to memorize these look-alike designs, the brain is soon overwhelmed by complexity and clutter. Furthermore, our eyes scan a face or visual design from all directions.  But English must be read left-to-right, letter by letter, then by syllables and words, but always left to right.  The instant our eyes start darting around, which they always do with graphic designs, reading is finished.  Sight-word readers report the most amazing cognitive problems.  Words slide around on the page.  Words reverse themselves.  This doesn’t seem to make sense until you consider that the eyes are jumping around on the page in random jerks, thus inducing complementary side-effects. 

For many children, the next step is to be told they have dyslexia, which simply means they don’t read well.  They are told they have ADHD.  They need an appointment with a shrink.  They need to take Ritalin.  Pretty soon these children are a mess inside and out, all because their school gave them an impossible task.

Even if you do memorize the 220 sight-words perfectly, you have been set up for a lifetime of cognitive schizophrenia.  You will read some words phonetically and some as designs, back and forth in no predictable order.  You won’t know which kind of word is coming next.  There will be anxiety as your eyes go from left to right.  What is this next thing coming at you?  Is it in your sight-word inventory?  No, apparently not, which means you have to read it phonetically.  Your brain has to make a lot of extra decisions, which cripples reading speed.  You become one of those millions of people who never reads for pleasure because it is, for you, hard work.

Experience suggests that girls are more patient with bad pedagogical methods.  Many boys become angry and sullen.  They pull back and refuse to participate.  If you want to know why American college students are 57% female, think first of the phrase “sight-words.”

When Rudolf Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read in 1955, he thought he had made the case so compellingly that no one would dare promote sight-words in the future.  He was wrong.  Our Education Establishment spun off the International Reading Association in 1956.  Their dozens of celebrated experts continued to promote sight-words up until the present day.  First-graders still come home with lists of sight-words that they must commit to memory.  So we have a surreal situation: sixty years later, many a Johnny still can’t read.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that Balanced Literacy and Whole Language are the contemporary repositories of all the bad reading theories from the last 85 years, perpetuated to the degree that each separate community will tolerate them.  Now, Common Core seems comfortable with locking in all of this baggage.  That should tell us from the start that Common Core is not serious about improving education.  Common Core Math loves elaborate and elusive word problems – not a good idea anyway, but just imagine these semi-illiterate kids struggling with “Juanita, Charlotte, and Darcy walked to the mall to buy seven bags of stickers, but they had only $22.45 between them and…”  Even the parents are getting ulcers from trying to help their kids.

QED: The one essential K-12 reform is to eliminate sight-words, and to teach children to read with systematic phonics.  All phonics experts say the process takes about four months, but certainly by the second grade.

Bruce Deitrick Price’s ed site is Improve-Education.org.  His new novel is The Man Who Falls In Love With His Wife, a romantic drama set in Manhattan.  Info and e-book here.

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