K–12: Sight-Words Are a Sick Joke

Whole Word (one of almost a dozen aliases) was first introduced into public schools circa 1931.  The official goal required that students memorize at least 500 sight-words each year.  Two insurmountable problems showed up immediately.  For nearly all children, this goal is impossible to reach.  Even if someone did reach 500, that's not nearly enough.

Wait, it gets much worse.  Throughout the following decades, the official goal was reduced again and again.  The typical goal now is about 100 sight-words per year.  Even for good students, sight-words are hard, tedious work, like memorizing phone numbers and chemical compounds.  Only children with near photographic memories can easily master 100 sight-words per year.  However, even this low number rarely adds up to even 1,200 at the end of high school, because new words tend to overprint earlier words.  So that's 12 years of hard work and struggle.  But you still can't be called literate because you can't read the typical book or newspaper except in a slow, unpleasant way.

Another huge defect is that sight-word lists for grades 1 to 6 usually include only lowercase words, mostly short.  How were children supposed to learn Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania, and Independence Day?  Sight-words seem designed to undercut not just reading, but also the study of geography, history, and science.

So it's easy to see that sight-words, from the start, were hostile to traditional education.  Why did the education commissars recommend a ride on this garbage scow?  The simplest explanation is that Progressives prefer leveling and mediocrity, presumably because it facilitates their social engineering schemes.

What we know for sure is that some cunning minds were and still are devoted to perpetuating this fraud.  Scan some of the many hundreds of sites promoting sight-words.  Old alibis and new propaganda are dispensed with confident abandon.  If children are cognitively confused by sight-words, we are told that the real problem is dyslexia, something you are born with.  If children misbehave in the classroom, Ritalin and such are prescribed.  The bogus instructional method itself is not questioned.

In 1940, Dr. Robert Seashore conducted research on how many words children know (see Why Johnny Still Can't Read, Chapter 10).  The psychologist startled everyone by showing that first-grade children have a listening and speaking vocabulary of close to 25,000 words!  This amount increases by about 5,000 words a year until you find college graduates knowing roughly 150,000.  Imagine you are part of an Education Establishment that wants to teach children a measly few hundred words a year using a painful and awkward method.  You look like a fool.  What do you do?

To protect sight-words, the professors continually tried to discredit phonics, from 1931 to now.  For one example, some clever, diabolical people invented "barking at print," a gimmick that claims that a child might read words phonetically but have no idea what they mean.  (This happens only in the sense that adults could read a paragraph by Wittgenstein and not understand what he is saying.)

The dirty trick here is to discredit the most gifted readers in the classroom and downgrade them into failures and phonies.  I've talked to teachers who swore they had a "dog" in their class.  "He could read anything you put in front of him.  Of course, he didn't understand a word he said.  He was just barking."

I see this old sophistry discussed in a recent blog, as if it were a new breakthrough: "When your child is reading to you, are you sure they ... are actually understanding what they are reading, or are they just barking at print?  i.e. Reading the words correctly but not actually decoding them, so they really have no idea what they are reading.  It is very easy to be fooled into thinking your child is a good reader."  See?  Your smart, high-achieving kid is nothing but a dog.

This sophistry is an emblem of the sight-word hoax.  Every kid's a dog, but not one kid actually barked.  This reality-twisting is a kind of genius.

In 2000 the Education Establishment staged a strategic retreat.  In the future, schools would teach Balanced Literacy, which promotes a mix of phonics and sight-words.  Most of the teachers in America have been convinced that all children learn differently, so you can't use just one method.  These teachers expect confused children to switch easily from one reading style to another.  In fact, it's disorienting, like rubbing your stomach and patting your head.

In recent years, there has been a clear return to phonics.  But my impression is that the hoaxsters are digging in.  They will hang on to this clunker as long as they can manage it.  Don't help them.

The biggest problem in American education is illiteracy.  Good news: It's the easiest problem to fix.  Teach systematic phonics in the first grade.  Find a program that is short, simple, and cheap.  (Don Potter, phonics guru, says the best is Blend Phonics by Hazel Loring.)

For a short introduction to phonics, see Pre-emptive Reading.

Don't be misled by the anti-phonics hustle.  These people want to make everything complicated, murky, and painfully slow.  In fact, children should typically learn to read in the first year of school.  Anything less than that, you're fighting the sight-word Ponzi scheme. 

Sight-words are a Ponzi scheme because, at first, progress can seem rapid.  This illusion turns out to be a curse.  Children can't escape from their bad habits, and they rarely become good readers.

Bruce Deitrick Price is the author of  Saving K–12: What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?, a lively short explanation of problems in K–12.

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