kitchen table math, the sequel: Sight Words, A Case Study

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sight Words, A Case Study

Don Potter just e-mailed me this post describing how a family used one of his free online phonics methods to fix their sight word induced problems.

The father explains their sight word foray and its unfortunate results (excerpts from the post follow, read the whole thing, there is a lot more and the comments are also interesting.):

Shortly after she turned three, I started trying to get her to sound out simple words, from street signs ("Bump" was one of our favorites) and from books like Dr. Seuss' Hop On Pop. She was able to sound out simple, phonetically regular words by age three-and-a-half.

Now, at this point I made a decision that, if I had to do over again, I would not do [snip]

So I looked up the "Dolch List": ... We got pretty good at making long sentences using nothing but these 220 cards, and the Fairy rather enjoyed playing with them. And by the time she was four, she also became very adept at reading most sentences that contained these words. Truth be told, the Dolch words do make up a big chunk of our everyday vocabulary--this sentence alone contains more than a dozen of them. And she had them down cold.


As I later came to understand, when I was finally exposed to the contorversy between the Whole Word and Phonics approaches to learning reading, I was actually teaching my little girl some bad habits that would come back to bite us. We had made it very easy for our girl to recognize common words; she didn't have to do any phonetical decoding to read these words. Phonetical decoding takes work, and she (like most kids who just turned four) didn't want to have to put in any hard-core analysis to get what she wants. The words are supposed to come easily! I should just be able to look at the words and have them pop into my mind!

The skill of sounding out simple words, that she had been able to do shortly after she turned three, had been completely lost. If she didn't know a word by sight, she was stuck. [snip] ; even if a word was in her spoken vocabulary, she couldn't recognize it on the page if she hadn't seen it before in print, even if it was totally phonetically regular, with all short-vowel sounds. And when she came to these words she didn't recognize, she would try to guess, coming up either with nonsense words or with words that were similar-looking (same starting and ending letter, totally different middle), or with a synonym that bore no visual resemblance to the correct word on the page.


Here's the way I understand it: A reader who has been trained to read phonetically, and a reader who has been trained to read words by sight-recognition (See-and-Say or Whole Language), use their brains in totally different ways. In the brain of the sight-recognition reader, reading activates the part of the brain used in visual recognition--the same parts that recognize faces, for example. In the phonetic reader's brain, reading activates the parts of the brain that are used in analysis, and in the processing of sound (even if the person is reading silently). What goes on in the two readers' brains is completely different. When they make mistakes, they will tend to make different kinds of mistakes. And it's very difficult for a person thoroughly trained in one method to make the switch and start using the other kind of method--especially as the student gets older.


So, how is my daugter doing? Well, after finding Mr. Potter's website, we decided to try using Hazel Loring's phonetical method on our newly-turned four-year-old. When we had gone through that completely, we started through the McGuffey's Readers, being careful to make sure that she sounded out every unfamiliar word she came upon. She finished the primer and the First Eclectic Reader earlier this year, and rather enjoyed them. We've also started Level A Spelling Workout, from Modern Curriculum Press (Recommended in The Well Trained Mind), on the theory that learning a phonics-based spelling curriculum will strengthen her phonetical reading skills.


We think it's all working. While the Pillowfight Fairy still tends to guess at big words instead of sounding them out, she's doing it a little less often; and it may only be because she hasn't yet learned how to break the big words down into syllables--something that the spelling curriculum will hopefully cure. But aside from that, she's gotten very good at reading new material that includes words that I've never seen her read before, so I think we must be doing something right.

I've seen the exact same thing with the many students I've tutored. Just change the names, and make it 10 times harder to fix for every additional year the sight words get pounded into their heads. The younger the student and the fewer sight words taught, the easier the remediation process. It's really hard to believe until you see it, there is something going on with those sight words that makes it incredibly difficult to get them reading from left to right and sounding out words without guessing. Nonsense words are helpful, and so are syllables. With some of my older students, I've had to cover up all but the syllable we were working on to keep them from trying to guess the whole word at once. It's a very trying process that takes a lot of patience. Guessing habits are very hard to break. However, the results are very rewarding! I love watching my students learn to love reading and learn to sound out "hard" multiple syllable words on their own.

There are several theories out there to explain this: Don Potter explains the reading traingle theory, I have several theories on my dyslexia page: eye movement theories and brain location theories:

Sight words do not promote left to right reading because when memorizing words as a whole, the eye jumps all around the word. Too many words taught as wholes by sight encourages the development of dyslexia. [5] Moreover, pictures and words are processed on different sides of the brain. Not only do sight words encourage incorrect eye movements, they also confuse the brain, which research has shown reads words sound by sound.

The brains of dyslexics can be retrained with phonics. While this is easier with young children, it is even possible with adult dyslexics. [2] You can see brain changes from phonics training in the seventh slide of this online presentation by Dr. Jack M. Fletcher. [3]

and there is even a spelling brain connection different from the reading brain connection (I'm pretty sure it was different, the spelling brain pictures were very small. However, it seemed to be different areas of the brain than the reading areas):

A recent study found that dyslexics that were taught spelling in this orthographic manner improved their spelling. The study also found that this type of teaching "can actually change their brains' activity patterns to better resemble the brains of normal spellers."

And Dr. Hilde L. Mosse has a conditioned reflex theory:

To show a child a group of letters and to tell him that this means "house"--as is done in those kindergartens and first grades where children are introduced to reading with so-called "sight words"--confuses them, interferes with the formation of conditioned reflexes, and teaches them a lie. The letter sequence h o u s e stands for the word "house" and not for the house they see; pictures do that, but not letters.

Whatever the cause, I'm pretty sure that Sight Words are a Root of all Reading Evil.


Instructivist said...

[Too many words taught as wholes by sight encourages the development of dyslexia.]

Help me out here. I have a naive understanding of reading processes. My understanding is that novices learn best by sounding out words but once a reader becomes an expert reader, nearly all words become sight words. (I am using sight words in the sense of instant recognition.) When I observe my own reading, I notice that I have instant recognition just by looking at a word.

Is this presumed risk of dyslexia only applicable to novices and expert readers are immune?

ElizabethB said...

You think you are reading it by sight--brain studies of good readers have found that they are using the area of the brain where sounds are processed, not where wholes or pictures are processed. So, you are actually probably reading/processing it as sounds, just doing it so fast you don't realize it.

Brain studies of those with dyslexia show processing on the side of the brain where pictures are stored while they are reading. After they are remediated, the fMRI pictures show a movement mostly to the same side and location of where good readers process words while reading.

Eye movement studies show the same type of thing. Early eye movement studies did not have sensitive enough equipment to pick up exactly what was going on, and they incorrectly assumed that good readers were reading the words as wholes. Later studies with better equipment showed differently. (Although it's a bit more complex than that, that's the general explanation. There is actually a some looking behind and ahead involved as well.)

ElizabethB said...

Once you learn to sound out words well, you should be fairly immune to sight words, depending on how long you've been reading phonetically and how automatic it has become. Learning spelling at the same time should also help fix the sound/spelling pattern in your brain.

Of course, the onslaught of sight words kids see in all those vocabulary controlled readers is so high, who knows! (They are also horribly boring. I make sure we get older books and/or non-vocabulary controlled books when we go to the library, many of the new ones are so dumbed down sentence structure and vocabulary wise that I can't bear to read them.)

Anonymous said...

What occurred to me as I read about one father trying to teach his daughter to read, and derailing her early success with sight words, is this: don't push reading on kids too early. I think that is a problem in itself.

One the other hand, when my eldest was learning to read in first grade, with difficulty, all the contextual clues and guessing strategies that the teacher used very clearly made it more difficult for him to read. When he would get to a word he could not easily sound out or sight read, he would look up at the picture and say what seemed to fit. That is not reading. To help him unlearn the bad non-reading habits he picked up in school I had to try to find easy readers that did not have pictures on every page -- and there aren't many.

ElizabethB said...

You can teach them early to help protect them from these kinds of guessing problems without making it a grind or pushing them.

With and the leapfrog fridge magnets and leapfrog's DVD "The Talking Letter Factory," they learn to love letters and sounds.

My daughter was starting to memorize words as wholes just from seeing the same words over and over when we read to her, so we started out phonics quite young with her to make sure she didn't acquire bad guessing habits. But, we tried to do it in fun ways until she hit school age, when we added in Webster's Speller.

In an ideal world, later might be better, I'm not sure what the best time to teach them truly is.

I have a friend who forgot to teach one of her children his colors until he was 3 or 4. She said that by waiting this long, it only took 1 minute for him to learn all his colors!

ElizabethB said...

Read, Write and Type is another fun way to teach them phonics when they're young. (

"When he would get to a word he could not easily sound out or sight read, he would look up at the picture and say what seemed to fit. That is not reading."

I agree! Too many teachers, unfortunately, do not agree and/or do not realize that this is not true reading.

palisadesk said...

My understanding is that novices learn best by sounding out words but once a reader becomes an expert reader, nearly all words become sight words.

Instructivist is basically correct. For a more detailed description of the process, see Shaywitz' 2003 book, Overcoming Dyslexia. Fluent readers, although their brains process every letter of every word, do not continue to serially decode words -- they have long since formed a "stable representation" of words (and word parts, such as morphemic units) which are stored in a region of the brain Shaywitz calls the "word form" area.

Here's a news article with some basic information about this concept: Shaywitz

While some people believe that they read words "by sight" research largely contradicts this perception. An interesting study involved subjects being flashed words very quickly and asked to click yes or no to whether the word flashed belonged to a certain category. For example, the question might be, "is it a flower?" and the person would see a word flashed for only a few milliseconds -- most obviously flowers or not, then the ringer -- a homophone like "rows." That's where it got interesting. Almost all subjects identified "rows" as a flower, which proved they were processing the sound of the word, not primarly its visual configuration. For fluent readers, this word identification process is so rapid and automatic it seems to be divorced from auditory referents, but in fact is not.

While older struggling readers can be remediated successfully using explicit instructional techniques, and the appropriate neuronal pathways built up, fluency is much more difficult to develop. The most successful approaches here have been fluency-based protocols such as those in precision teaching.

Michael Maloney has developed a program for homeschoolers to teach their children to read, based heavily on DI and PT principles. It's entitled "Teach Your CHildren to Read Well" and is available here: Maloney books.

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