Bruce Deitrick Price
K-12: Land of promises, promises
By Bruce Deitrick Price
January 17, 2019

The biggest promises in K-12 involve reading and sight-words. Children are told: Learn your sight-words and you will be good readers!

There is a strange tautology in sight-word instruction. When you learn to be a successful reader, you will be a successful reader. That's the weird boilerplate found throughout K-12.

Suppose you tell a bunch of six-year-olds that tight-rope walking is easy. Put one foot in front of the other; don't look down; smile confidently and walk. Children, you stress, cannot enjoy fun on the high wire until they have learned to walk comfortably on the high wire.

The sin here is to make the first steps sound simple and routine. In fact, they might take years to master. Few children ever learn to walk on a high wire. And few master more than a small number of sight-words.

A huge site explains: "Sight words are words that appear frequently in most of the text people read, but can't easily be sounded out. Learning them helps children become more confident readers." In fact, attempting to learn these words renders many children depressed and defeated.

Another influential site promises: "Learning sight-words allows a child to recognize these words at a glance – on sight – without needing to break the words down into their individual letters and is the way strong readers recognize most words. Knowing common, or high frequency, words by sight makes reading easier and faster, because the reader does not need to stop to try and sound out each individual word, letter by letter." Promises, promises.

Wikipedia says: "Sight words, often also called high frequency sight words, are commonly used words that young children are encouraged to memorize as a whole by sight, so that they can automatically recognize these words in print without having to use any strategies to decode.... The advantage for children being able to recognize sight-words automatically is that a beginning reader will be able to identify the majority of words in a beginning text before they even attempt to read it." You see, just like that, beginners will be able to identify the majority of words.

A famous site asks, "What are Dolch Words?" The answer begins: "The list contains 220 'Service words' that must be quickly recognized in order to achieve reading fluency.... Sight-words make up 50 to 70 percent of any general text. Therefore, teaching The Dolch Word List is a crucial goal of education grades kindergarten through 3." Quickly recognized?? Typically this task takes several years. So "reading fluency" is not part of the child's life for a long time.

Of course, people selling a phony naturally take shots at phonics, the main competition. One teacher tells us: "My observations of students engaged in literacy activities have demonstrated that the students who are not fluent readers within this class lack a mastery of high frequency sight words. I have found that these students spend a significant amount of time decoding words rather than having an automatic recall of the commonly used sight words.... Phonics is the most commonly used method to teach reading. Decoding words involves understanding the alphabetic principle, letter sound correspondences, and recoding unfamiliar words into a pattern that is recognizable. However, this process of word analysis decreases reading fluency and hinders reading comprehension." So there! The method that actually works decreases fluency and hinders comprehension.

Now we see some of the problems. Another teacher records: "We know sight-words are a core part of our literacy instruction.... I can even confidently assume we are all teaching sight-words on a daily basis within our classrooms. So why do we still have students who stare at us blankly when they come to a sight-word that we know they know while reading a book?.... Flash forward a week later. Those same students are reading a book at the guided reading table. On page three, one of the words the teacher just went over is written as plain as day on the page. The student skips the word as she whisper reads at the table. 'You know that word. We just went over it,' the teacher says. 'We even wrote the word in shaving cream. We rainbow wrote the word. We wrote it with our magic fingers in the sky. We did yoga while we chanted it. We sculpted the word from play-dough. We built the word with magnetic letters. We wrote the word with my fancy markers. I know you know that word.'"

With sight-words, success is a temporary thing. Think back to an exam where you memorized some formulas. You knew them for the test. Two weeks later you didn't know them.

An abstract for a Masters degree reports: "Data was collected through daily observation of students and recorded notes, formal and informal interviews, and student work samples. After analyzing the data, three major themes were found: sight word instruction improved students' overall reading abilities, sight word instruction improved students' confidence in reading, and sight word instruction alone is not beneficial without other literacy instruction.... In order for students to become adequate readers, they must first learn to read sight-words...For some students learning to read is not an easy task, and they will require extra supports and instruction in order to become adequate readers.... Sight-word instruction is a successful strategy to use with all students, but especially when working with students with disabilities and struggling readers." In fact, reading disabilities are typically caused by sight-word instruction.

More promises in a Masters: "Even though it may take considerable effort and time for a student to learn the entire sight word list, it is beneficial. Having the ability to recognize these words quickly can dramatically increase confidence and improve reading proficiency of the beginning reader. Since complete fluency with sight-words is the foundation of literacy, a variety of techniques must be used to teach them."

Note that prospective teachers are forced to prove, once again, the false promises that have created more than 40 million functional illiterates in this country. Probably these teachers will be forever wed to a fallacy, unable to walk away to a more literate world.

The better strategy is to teach children to read with phonics. Takes about four months, as opposed to struggling for years with lists of sight-words.

(Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is "Saving K-12 – What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?" His education site is Improve- )

© Bruce Deitrick Price


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Bruce Deitrick Price

Bruce Deitrick Price is the author of six books, an artist, a poet, and an education reformer. He was born in Norfolk, Virginia, earned Honors in English Literature from Princeton, served two years in the Army, and then lived many years in Manhattan.

Price explains educational theories and methods on his ed site (founded in 2005). He has 400 education articles and videos on the Internet. More forcefully than most, Price argues that the public schools are mediocre because our Education Establishment wants them that way.

Price's literary site is .


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