Why The Teaching Of Sight Words Is One Of The Primary Causes Of Reading Struggles In Children
In over a decade of teaching children to read, I've taught children of all ages, and a special group of kids are particularly dear to me - the 6 to 9 year old struggling readers. These are amazing kids that are perfectly bright and intelligent!
But they cannot read...
...because they are taught to "read" with sight words, and...
...because without explicit phonics instructions and with out developing phonemic awareness, so many words all start to look the same to these children, and everything becomes a big, jumbled mess, causing confusion, frustration, and stress!
This, combined with ineffective school taught "strategies" of guessing and skipping over unknown (unfamiliar) words is what causes so many of our children to struggle with reading.
It doesn't have to be this way!
When I first get these struggling readers join my classes, I can see self-doubt, self-blame, and I can feel the complete lack of confidence in these kids. It pains me to see these bright and intelligent children struggle with reading, and that's just not how it should be...
...not to mention the incredible stress the parents are put under because of it!
Typically within just 2 to 4 weeks of starting my lessons, we start seeing huge improvements in all these struggling readers. I can usually speed them through my entire program of 65 lessons in about 10 to 12 weeks, and we see amazing transformations in these children that are all of a sudden caught up to grade level, can read just as well as their friends and classmates, or even better, and many even begin reading chapter books!
Now, let me explain how and why the teaching of sight words can cause serious reading struggles in children.
Let's First Define Sight Words
The term "sight word" is so commonly used and thrown around, that it is used interchangeably with "high frequency words", or words that readers will encounter often in reading. It's a group of words that make up a big chunk of the printed text we see in English.
Many educators believe that these "high frequency" words must be memorized for anyone to be able to read fluently. However, real reading fluency is developed by mastering letter to sound relationships and it is through repeated decoding and "sounding out" practice, that children develop an automatic and instant ability to decode and read on the fly.
Research has found that the brain learns to read one sound at a time, and not through memorizing words as entire units. When great readers read, the process is so fast that it appears they are reading "whole" words, but the process actually involves them reading through automatic and instant decoding - not through memorized words.
This is how I define sight words: Only words that cannot be decoded (sounded out) are considered sight words. For example:
- the - "the" could actually be sounded out as voiced /th/ + ə (schwa), but I teach it as a sight word.
How Sight Words Can Cause Reading Problems
Probably the most well known list of sight words is the Dolch list of 220 sight words, and then there's also Fry's list of 1,000 sight words.
The Oxford dictionary contains over 170,000 English words.
You need to have a vocabulary of about 3,000 words to be able to read around 95% of all common texts.
How successful do you think your child or anyone will be at memorizing 3,000 words? The demand on memory grows exponentially as children are forced to memorize more and more "sight words", when in fact, the majority of these words can be easily learned through decoding and sounding out - through a combination of phonics learning and phonemic awareness development.
Besides, the memorization of words as entire units has a huge downfall, and it is what causes children to really struggle with reading...
...there are so many words in English with similar shapes and configurations, that without a more appropriate and effective reading strategy, children and adults become easily confused by all the different words with similar shapes. Let me show you what I mean.
Have a look at the words below:
Without a strong phonics & PA foundation, this is how a struggling reader sees words - rectangular shapes, or shapes with protrusions. This is why a poor reader will easily confuse "three", "there", "these", and confuse "barn", "burn", "born". There are so many words with similar shapes in English, and you can quickly see how the teaching of "sight words" can lead to serious reading struggles in our children.
Here's what one parent shared with us about her experience with teaching sight words to her son and then using our reading program:
If Not Sight Words, How Do We Teach Children To Read?
The proper method - scientifically proven to be the most effective - to teach children to read is through a combination of synthetic phonics along with phonemic awareness development.
In their report, the National Reading Panel (NRP) stated: "Teaching phonics and phonemic awareness produces better reading results than whole language programs. Teaching phonemic awareness improves a child's reading, reading comprehension, and spelling abilities."
The NRP referred to just phonics, but I'm going to say specifically, it needs to be synthetic phonics - the most explicit, systematic, and logical phonics method to teach reading.
Synthetic phonics is the teaching of letter(s) to sound(s) relationships where we teach children to master the 44 sounds of English and teach all the different spelling patterns that can represent these 44 sounds. For example:
- A makes the /a/ sound
- Z makes the /z/ sound
- CH makes the /ch/, /sh/, and /k/ sounds (chop, chef, school)
- EA makes the long E, short E, and long A sounds (speak, bread, break)
But teaching children these basic and advanced letter to sound relationships is NOT enough. Along with the teaching of synthetic phonics, we also must teach children phonemic awareness - teaching children how to manipulate and connect the smallest sound units smoothly together to say the full word.
I do also teach sight words (words that can't be decoded easily), and there are words that must be taught as sight words; however, I do not introduce sight words until my students have at least developed a basic foundation and understanding of phonics and phonemic awareness...
...so that their established perceptual pattern is not to look at words as shapes, but they inherently understand how English functions as an alphabet based language, where the squiggly text we see represent different sounds and by connecting the sounds, we can figure out the words. The first sight word I teach in my reading program is "THE", and it's only first introduced in lesson #12.
My program teaches through a unique combination of synthetic phonics and phonemic awareness. There are 65 step by step lessons taught through 2 stages of learning where we break everything down into easily manageable and easily understandable chunks.