K-12 Quagmire: Problems with Sight-Words
Why do we have millions of children who never become fluent readers? Easy. Our Education Establishment prefers methods that don't work.
Every language is either a sound-language such as English or a picture-language such as Chinese. They are opposites. You cannot mix them without creating mental chaos. But what do you know? Our public schools insist on mixing them together. This is dogma in today's K-12.
Most Americans have heard of "balanced literacy." That's jargon for mixing them together.
Sound-languages are also known as phonetic languages – for example, Latin, German, Italian, and English. Children read these languages by first learning an alphabet, the sounds represented by the letters, and how to blend those sounds. Then they can read a million words. (They see CAT on the page and blend those three letters into one spoken word. Note that the sounds are contained in the printed words.)
Picture-languages are also known as hieroglyphic, ideographic, or sight-languages – for example, Babylonian, ancient Egyptian, and Chinese. There is no alphabet to learn. Instead children memorize whole diagrams or designs one by one. Note that the pronunciation of a word is not in the word, but in your memory. For example, Ω. You can stare at it all day and never figure out how to pronounce it. Picture-languages are very memory-intensive. Historically, they provided literacy for a smart elite.
So we see two different strategies for creating a language. Surely, nobody would be so malevolent as to make children memorize phonetic English words as if they were hieroglyphic symbols. Doing so almost guarantees cognitive schizophrenia (aka dyslexia).
In fact, our Education Establishment is that malevolent. Look-say, introduced in 1931, insisted that all English words must be memorized as graphic wholes. (Children look at the design and say the pronunciation, thus Look-say.)
A famous book came out in 1955 explaining why this approach was a disaster. But here we are, 60 years after Rudolf Flesch and his Why Johnny Can't Read. Most public schools still trick parents into accepting a big chunk of sight-words.
Parents are told that "high-frequency words" cannot be sounded out because they "don't follow any rules." These oddball words must be dealt with by visual memorization. It's this Big Lie that causes the damage.
In a sound-language, words must always be processed left to right. In a picture-language, words can be processed any which way: left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top, diagonally, etc. That's how everyone looks at faces, cars, pictures, etc. If a child starts to process English words in that random way, the child will never be a fluent reader.
Making children memorize sight-words introduces a permanent kink. Each new word on the page prompts the question: is this a word I read phonetically, or is it one of those sight-words I was supposed to memorize? Answering this question takes extra seconds. And what if you're sure it is a sight-word, but you can't remember the pronunciation? You have to guess.
Sight-words lead to so-called functional illiteracy, with many tens of millions of people swearing they can't read for pleasure.
I was recently engaged in a bizarre conversation. A wealthy family spend more than $25,000 a year to send their son to a private school so that this child can have every advantage in life. But that school (foolishly) uses sight-words to teach reading. This boy, now in the third grade, is a damaged reader who needs tutoring. The surreal part is that the mother could parrot the official lie: "Of course they teach phonics, but there are a lot of high-frequency words that don't obey any rules. So the kids have to memorize those as sight-words. Of course."
I started thinking about a relative who was in elementary school in the 1950s and was kept illiterate until the end of fourth grade. The same technique crippled both boys. Meanwhile, I know a former teacher who believes that our experts are sincerely trying to get better – they just can't get their act together. Please. Would you promote the same destructive method for 70 years if you were sincerely trying to improve literacy?
Sight-words aren't needed or helpful; they should be eliminated. Sight-words are destructive because the brain is asked to do two different steps unpredictably. Simon says: identify sight-word...read phonetically...read phonetically...identify sight-word... Who wouldn't be confused?
The damage to individual children and to the society is massive beyond calculation. All this happens because you mix two things you cannot mix. Suppose you have patients with Type A blood, and you give them a transfusions of Type B blood. You'll kill them.
Let us call this movie The Eternal Darkness of the Sight-Word Scam. Steven Spielberg directs. Jim Carrey shows us the tragicomic world of the functionally illiterate person. The first scene is a 25th high school reunion. Jim Carrey confronts the teacher who made him illiterate. Carrey tries to throw this teacher out a third-floor window. Hilarity ensues.
CODA: For the sake of illustration and discussion, let's say "&" is pronounced "my," "#" is pronounced "car," "@" is pronounced "is," and "%" is pronounced "fast." So a sentence in this sight-language could look like this: & # @ % and be pronounced "my car is fast." Imagine how difficult and tedious it would be to memorize (with instant recall) even 100 such symbols, never mind thousands. This, in effect, is what millions of children are told to do.