I have an adorable niece who is learning to read in kindergarten with a controlled set of vocabulary called sight words. This is not new or uncommon in the public education system and it seems to produce young readers. I would like to caution you about the over use of sight words in the following article.
Stand in front of any sized picture in your home and look at it. Now think about what you saw first, second, and third. This is how a teacher wants their students to look at, to memorize, and to learn sight words. A sight word is to help a child with reading fluency and fluidity. The student is expected to be able to look at a certain set of words and know each of them within a second or two. Not only is a sight word list used for building vocabulary, it is used for words that don’t seem to fit any spelling rules.
The Brain Processes Pictures Different Than Words
When you look at a picture you can look at it from any direction: from middle upward, from lower left corner to center, or any which way. This is just how a child will look at a sight word to learn it. The word is being learned as a picture or “pictograph.” Thus, there is no way to stop the problem of seeing and writing letters and words backwards.
Memorizing shapes of words and learning them as sight words explains a lot sometimes. If the word “stop” is in the sight word list and the word “start” is not, a child will easily read “stop” (because of the practice and memorization). But a child may have difficulty in sounding out the word “start” because it hadn’t been memorized for its shape. At the risk of sounding dramatic, this is a travesty, since there are similar sounds in both words.
Hearing Impaired Students Do Learn Differently
Famed deaf educator, Thomas Gallaudet, is the inventor of a “look-say” or “whole word” method of reading. He developed this system of reading specifically for those who were deaf. It was never intended to be used to teach the hearing student. If a child is hearing impaired, it becomes important to add sight words to the repertoire of reading methods, but not before.
Explicit Phonics Solves Many Reading Difficulties
Explicit phonics helps a child to sound out any word. Since there are many more words in a child’s vocabulary than he/she can actually spell or read, as they “decode” or sound out words, the meanings become clear. This reminds me of the old proverb that says, “Give a man a fish, and he can eat for a day, but teach a man to fish, and he can eat for a lifetime.” I like to say: “Show a child the shapes of words and he or she can read only those words, but teach a child explicit phonics and he or she can read most anything.”
There are many criticisms toward explicit phonics. The answers to them are simple. When you actually implement this type of phonics, it is really much more than the sound bite of its title. Taught in its entirety, any excellent explicit phonics program includes teaching a child to “sound out” individual letters, letter combinations, syllables, and whole words. After establishing the usage, vocabulary is discussed, built and continually reviewed, sentences and paragraphs are created, rules are used and reviewed repeatedly, and great books are read.
A Caution to Those Helping Children Learn to Read
There is a link between dyslexia/dyslexic tendencies and sight words because the brain is not wired for learning English by pictures/pictographs, but by sounding out words in an orderly fashion and from left to right. An explicit phonics approach will teach your child how to write, spell, and read in a systematic way so that any dyslexic tendencies can be corrected and prevented. Learning to read words as pictures stunts reading growth.
My kindergarten aged niece is reading and writing with a controlled set of vocabulary. This adorable little girl is a “smart cookie” and will learn no matter how she is taught. My caution to parents is this: if your child is having difficulty after kindergarten or first grade and not catching on to the reading, please reinforce the idea of “sounding out” words: attacking beginning and ending sounds, and middle sounds. Play rhyming games. Make sure your child can hear sounds. Read to your child a lot. You will be helping him or her to develop great reading skills, and you will be preventing many reading difficulties.