Sight-Words are a Nightmare for Children and Society

One of the most remarkable historical facts of the last 80 years is the persistence of a sinister and unsuccessful pedagogy known as Look-Say, Whole Word, Sight-Words, Whole Language, Balanced Literacy, High-Frequency Words, and a number of other confusing terms.

Whatever these things are called, they must be banished, entirely, 100%, from American schools.

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Long story short: English is a phonetic language and must be taught phonetically. English is an alphabetic language and must be taught alphabetically. Children learn the letters, then the sounds of the letters, then the blends of the sounds. At that point they are reading. Usually at the age of five or six but certainly by seven. It’s not a big deal. Humans are wired to do this

So it should be completely obvious to everyone when fourth-graders are not reading, which most are not, that the school must have adopted a dysfunctional curriculum. It (and the people in charge) should be replaced.

Rudolf Flesch wrote a book in 1955 to discredit this method (“Why Johnny Can’t Read”).  He complained that Whole Word forced children to learn English the same way Chinese kids learn Chinese ideographs. That is, they memorize graphic diagrams. He thought that was a powerful argument that settled the matter. But even today, if I leave an article on an education site, some people leave comments to the effect that, well, the Chinese do it, so what’s the big deal? (Note that Chinese ideograms were designed from the start to be memorized visually. English typography can exhibit so much VARIETY precisely because it was never designed to BE memorized THAT way.)

The Chinese-do-it is just one of a half-dozen giant phosphorescent sophistries that keep the nightmare alive. 

Here is perhaps the main factor working against sane literacy instruction. Most people, when they become fluent adult readers, can’t remember how they learned to read or what the experience felt like. When their children are told to memorize sight-words, the parents shrug and say, well, that must be how it’s done. 

That is not how it’s done.

Sight-words are useless and toxic. (The CDC should issue a warning.) Sight-words make kids dyslexic and prompt ADHD; the next thing you know they’re on Ritalin.  

All you have to do is imagine that you’re required to memorize 100 license plates, 100 phone numbers, 100 UN flags, or the names of 100 pets, with instant recall. These are incredibly tedious and difficult projects. But for reading purposes, 100 is a mere beginning. Many children, however, can never master even that many sight-words.  Educationally, they are finished.  

Sight-Words are the gangsters of education. 

(It’s a safe bet that even the smart people reading this would never be able to master, let’s say, 300 license plates. Look at the plates-- randomly arranged-- and say the owner's last name. Very fast, two or three per second, otherwise you don’t have real reading speed. Imagine how frazzled you will be. You think you will want to curl up with a good book? Most of the kids in public schools don’t want to. Now you know why.)

Most discussions in the media about improving American education are dishonest and beside the point if we don’t first correct reading instruction.

For more analysis on this topic, please see “42: Reading Resources” on Improve-Education.org.

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(If anyone needs an article or quote for their site or publication, contact me.)

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