The Reading Wars in the United States go back to roughly 1930. That’s when the common-sense phonics approach was demonized and discarded. Every officially certified expert brayed a new song: phonics is old-fashioned; Look-say (or sight-words as it was also called) is the wonderful new way to learn to read.
Unfortunately for the country and tens of millions of victimized children, Look-say doesn’t work. This theory says that children can memorize whole words as graphic designs, the same way we memorize flags, currency symbols, emblems, cars, or faces. For the great majority of children, this theory is nonsense, much like saying they can learn to fly.
But this nonsense was official education theory throughout most of the United States for the next 70 years. Rarely has anything so silly and hugely destructive been perpetrated upon an entire country. Simply put, Whole Word was a hoax. If our Education Establishment had a conscience they would issue a public confession and beg for forgiveness.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand the surprising success of this hoax is to remember that the victims were young children. They didn’t know what was supposed to happen or what was possible. How could they discuss the trick that was being played on them? Essentially they were guinea pigs in a sociopath’s laboratory. They were told to say “See Dick and Jane” and similar rubbish over and over and over, until they had memorized the designs “on sight.”
By 2000 the Education Establishment saw that support for their fallacious ideas was weakening. Phonics was making a comeback. So the top educators embraced a fallback position called Balanced Literacy, which claims that “no one method works for all children.” In practice, they pretended to accept phonics. What they really did was create a pretext for keeping Whole Word dominant in the first few years of a child’s education. Bottom-line: sight-words are still doing major damage throughout K-4 education.
So here we are, 80 years along, and sight-words are a staple in our elementary schools. The people behind this mischief must be hardhearted ideologues. Who else could continue the destructive charade decade after decade?
Arguably, the professors and bureaucrats in the lower levels of the Education Establishment might get caught up in a struggle to advance their careers. Perhaps they don’t understand all the factors. The people at the top, however, clearly do understand the issues. An unworkable method like Whole Word could be kept in play only by the coordinated efforts of all the bosses.
The story has a message. The people in control of literacy instruction for the past 80 years have never been honest. Even they now admit that their dogma from 1930 to 2000 was wrong (thereby creating 50 million functional illiterate). Common sense dictates that these so-called experts should be replaced. In any case, their further recommendations should be ignored.
What should parents do? Very simple. If children come home with lists of sight-words to be memorized, start teaching phonics immediately All so-called “high frequency words” (a.k.a. Dolch words) can be learned phonetically. Show that each letter represents a sound; and when you blend sounds together, you get a new sound.
For example, every list of high-frequency words contains it, is, if, in. The initial sound is the same in every case. The second sound makes the four words different. Quite phonetic, quite logical, quite predictable. Doesn’t this prove that the so-called “inconsistencies” are greatly exaggerated?
The following nine words are always in the first 100 sight-words. Note that they all start with the distinctive th- sound: the, that, they, this, there, their, them, then, than. Children need to know there are hundreds of words in English that start with this distinctive sound: theory, thus, thin, thug, thick, thousand. Memorizing each separate sight-word is a long struggle. It’s so much easier to memorize a few letters and their sounds.
English words are full of phonetic clues that help you to pronounce them. That’s why even young students can tackle bizarre words like Fornacite or Acetaminophen, and pronounce them more or less correctly.
Conversely, a sight-word gives no help at all. You know how to say them or you don’t, as with these: §, ฿, ₪. Sight-words are cold and unfriendly. Many children give up after a few miserable years.
The reading crisis is the single biggest problem in education. Sight-words are the single biggest cause of the crisis. No education reform can be taken seriously unless it first addresses the reading issue. Proposals that promote sight-words (for example, Common Core) should be hooted out of the classrooms.
Schools are starting. Please pass this article to parents of young children.
The Triumph of Look-Say (a book review by Diane Ravitch that provides historical context)
Phonics vs Whole Word (video, under six minutes)
Reading Failure Explained (all about the saccade)
© Bruce Deitrick Price