kitchen table math, the sequel: Sight Words: a root of all reading evil

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sight Words: a root of all reading evil

There are other roots, but sight words are a big one.

I give reading grade level tests to all my friends who have children, and through our moves have tested (directly and indirectly) hundreds of children from several different states. In my informal survey, I have found that the more sight words taught in a school, the higher the percentage of children who are reading below grade level.

A search for "sight words" on Google produced 1.26 million hits, "Dolch sight words," 41,200. Chances are your school is teaching some.

Wikipedia entry for "Dolch Word List" states:

The Dolch Word list is a list of frequently used words compiled by Edward William Dolch, Ph.D. The list was originally published in his book "Problems in Reading", the Garrard Press, 1948.

Dolch compiled the list based on children's books of his era. The list contains 220 "service words" that have to be easily recognized in order to achieve reading fluency. The compilation excludes nouns, which comprise a separate 95-word list.

Many of the 220 Dolch words can't be "sounded out" and have to be learned by sight. Hence the alternative term "Sight Words".

I requested Dolch's "Problems in Reading" through Interlibrary Loan and found that Dolch used 3 existing lists of the most frequent words to develop his list of 220 words. He took words that were common to the Child Study Committe of the International Kindergarten Union (2,596 words), the first 500 words of the Gates list, and the 453 words on the Wheeler and Howell list. He then added in 27 words on only one or two of the lists which he deemed improtant or which completed a group (for example, stop was on all 3 lists, but start wasn't, so start was added to the list.)

The idea that the Dolch sight words are phonetically irregular and therefore must be taught by sight is a commonly believed idea that is just not true. My sight word page explains this, here are some excerpts (but do go read the whole thing, it's pretty short and also has a link to a pdf file arranging the Dolch words by their phonetic patterns.) Better yet, print it out along with copies of the pdf file and give it to everyone you know whose children are being subjected to unnecessary whole word sight word teaching.

Of the 220 most commonly taught sight words (called dolch sight words), 150 are completely phonetic and can be easily learned by sound. For the other 70 words, 68 conform to simple patterns of exceptions and can be taught phonetically. Sight words should not be taught at all in a pure phonics program that teaches by sound. They should merely be taught phonetically along with other words.

Here are some of these 150 phonetic "sight words:"
be, he, me, she, we
an, can, ran
got, hot, not

ate, make, take

see, green, keep, sleep, three
My remedial students who were sight word victims required much retraining, it generally takes a lot of nonsense words to break their guessing habits. The most difficult words to break their guessing habits were those on the Dolch word list which they were exposed to repeatedly. I had one 33 year old female student who never did learn the difference between than, then and them or there and their. She would sound them out for a while and then after a few weeks revert back and randomly guess the wrong one. I eventually got her sounding out most words, but those specific Dolch sight words were too difficult to overcome. I did manage to improve her reading grade level from 3rd grade to 8th grade before I had to move to another state.

Another excerpt from my sight word page, a bit of a table from Laurita's article "Basic Sight Vocabulary--A Help or a Hinderance?": (You'll want to see the full article.)

This table contains words selected from the Dolch Basic Sight Vocabulary List which have configurational similarity and have the potential to contribute to the development of visual response patterning which is unreliable and confused.


One of the problems with the way the sight words are taught is that the words are commonly separated alphabetically and across grade levels. For example, "can" is taught in a preprimer list, but "an" in first grade. "Not" is taught at the preprimer level, but students are not expected to be able to learn "got" until third grade. Students are apparently ready for "when," which includes the diagraph wh, by First Grade, but not the phonetically regular and simple "ten" until Third Grade. This method of listing and teaching "sight words" hides their phonetic pattern and reinforces the idea that they cannot be learned phonetically.

68 of the 70 words on the Dolch list do have some degree of phonetic irregularity, but can be easily taught by teaching a few phonics rules. Here are a few examples from my sight word page:

Words with ve at the end. Words in English will not end in v, so words with ve at the end may be either short or long:
give, live, have (Live can be pronounced either long or short depending on its usage.)

Words with consonant pair substitutions (z sound for s, v sound for f). If you say each of these sounds, you’ll note that they are very close sounds. They are pronounced with the mouth in the same position, but the first of each pair is voiced and the second is unvoiced.
as, has, is his, use, does, of (does also has the vowel sound mushed to uh)

This word has a schwa sound of uh and a consonant pair substitution of z for s:

This word is regular with its long e sound before words beginning with vowels. Before words beginning with consonants, the e sound will mush to the schwa sound of uh:
the (long e in the end, uh sound in the bears)

I have sight-word phobia. I have seen the harm they do to students and have spent countless hours undoing the damage they have done to my remedial students.

I have only taught a single sight word to my daughter. (The word "one." Then, I taught her the word "once" as following its pattern. The other 218 words on the list, I just taught her phonetically along with other words. For the 68 that are slightly irregular, I taught them in groups following that pattern of exception. She learned "eye" on her own somehow, probably as a sight word. It's not on the Dolch word list, but it, like "one," has no phonetic explanation suitable for a 5 year old. There actually are linguistic explanation for both one and eye, they are just very complex.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this. I am researching all I can find on how to use the Webster's system over at Don Potter's site. And this helps.