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One of my favorite intellectual activities is trying to explain sight-words so that the ordinary doctor, lawyer, or politician understands what I'm saying.
This has turned out to be extremely difficult. Rudolf Flesch thought, in 1955, that he had said the final word on why phonics is essential, and why Whole Word will inevitably destroy children by the millions. Unfortunately, he didn't make his case well enough. So we do have more than 40 million functional literates.
Okay, let me get really simplistic. Systematic phonics is the natural and only way to teach reading. Phonics ( i.e. sounds) and reading are virtually the same thing.
But our Education Establishment tries to replace phonics, dilute phonics, confuse phonics, and otherwise keep children as mixed up as possible.
You want to save public schools? This is what we have to fix: no more sight-words.
All the people who teach phonics talk about how quickly the whole process takes place: a few months in the first grade, at worst most of the year. In the second grade, kids are reading books off the shelf.
You see, the truth here is so horrific that you are going to have trouble facing it. Virtually everything they do in the public schools under the heading of "reading instruction" is actually unnecessary distractions from proper instruction. Let's say I'm teaching you to swim. But I mix in units on weightlifting, fluid dynamics, saving the rivers of America, birdwatching, stretching, and swimsuit fashions on the Riviera. We are just wasting time.
The big distraction is, of course, sight-words. Many public schools waste the first 2 to 4 years of a kid's education on the task of memorizing the basic Dolch list. And even if they can master that whole list of 220 sight-words, students are still functionally illiterate in terms of reading the average book or magazine. But very few students ever do master that list if by master you mean read at reading speed. (But the bitter truth is, kids don't need a single-sight word.)
Here is my latest attempt to explain all this stuff in a brief article.
"Why we have more than 40 million functional illiterate"