The official dogma in American public schools from 1930 until 2000 was that the alphabet was not important, and children should learn EVERY word as a sight-word. This doctrine required that English phonetic words be viewed as graphic designs; thus, all English words were memorized as if they were Chinese ideograms or Egyptian hieroglyphics.
This was the foolish and unsuccessful approach that Rudolf Flesch deconstructed in his famous 1955 bestseller, “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” He explained why treating English words as sight-words turned tens of millions of Americans into functional illiterates.
The sight-word fallacy was common policy until only a dozen years ago. At that time, our Education Establishment abruptly executed a strategic maneuver. They agreed that phonics is acceptable but then turned around and insisted that children should start their education by memorizing the 200 most common words “by sight.”
So the Education Establishment pretended to compromise. But the new dogma is that children must start just as they did in the bad years from 1930 to 2000.
There are two obvious problems here. First, the country is being asked to trust the same experts who came up with the worst possible ideas for 70 years.
Second, the Education Establishment still promotes the same central mistake, that some English words are not phonetic and can’t be pronounced according to the usual rules.
The claim has been made for the last 80 years that English, a phonetic language, is not really a phonetic language. However, Flesch said it was 97% phonetic; Denise Eide says it’s 98%. This writer will go further and insist it’s 100%. There is no such thing as a non-phonetic word in an English dictionary.
For example, consider these hypothetical but genuinely non-phonetic words: KKGJH (pronounced “boardwalk”), 45XCX (pronounced “Jennifer”), and as well currency symbols, weather symbols, astrological symbols, electrical symbols, and other pure designs. Somebody must tell you how these true sight-words are pronounced.
The only valid point that can be made by the sight-word crowd is that some English letters are inconsistent or irregular. True. But an old beat-up Ford sedan is still a car and still a Ford. No matter how exotic a word is, the letters will be pronounced in fairly predictable ways. (Note that English words are usually arranged alphabetically; all B-words start with the same sound. That’s phonics.)
But the Education Establishment is not even talking about exotic words. They are talking about such common (i.e., “high-frequency”) words as: at, an, a, and, am, are, can, do, for, for, go, has, he, she, be, in. These words appear easy to adults so they are tricked into thinking that the sight-word would be easy for children. That’s the sophistry.
In 1955 Flesch urged that every child should start by learning the alphabet, then the sounds of the letters, than the blends of those sounds. That’s what it means to learn to read by phonics. You do not need sight-words or any of the other gobbledygook created by our Education Establishment starting in 1930.
The problem today is that many schools tell parents: “Your child is getting plenty of phonics.” But the child comes home at night with a list of sight-words to memorize. (When that happens, parents should demand an Individualized Education Plan or IEP based on phonics.)
A sight-word is a one-dimensional object: only design features are considered. Don’t confuse sight-words with vocabulary words. Every student should learn as many vocabulary words as possible. Consider a word like “quarterback.” You learn the look of the word, the spelling of the word, the pronunciation and syllables of the word, the history of the word (and similar words), all in one sweep. (In football there is also a halfback and a fullback. The game is divided into quarters. Every child has a quarter at home. Smart teachers teach as many mnemonic hooks as possible.)
Conversely, treating “quarterback” as a sight word would be, for the child, like my presenting “gWXXfgH” to you and saying, “This sight-word is pronounced quarterback. Just memorize it.”
In 1959 author Helen Lowe wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly titled “Sight-word Method of Teaching Reading Hurts Children:...What children know as reading is a difficult, tedious, complicated, confusing, time-consuming, uninteresting, and unserviceable exercise in visual recall, association, surmise, invention, prediction, paraphrase, substitution, and interpolation or omission at will.”
Gee, maybe if she had told them plainly what the problems are, the Education Establishment would’ve stopped the torture.
Or maybe not. Lowe mentioned that ”the sight-word method also protects one of the biggest financial bonanzas ever to come the way of some of the big publishing companies.” She noted that some series started in kindergarten and ran all the way to the 8th grade. Keep them dumb, evidently, and the money will come.
MUST-SEE SHORT VIDEO: “Reading is Easy-- You have to work to make kids illiterate”
ARTICLE: "54: Preemptive Reading" [teach your children early]
VIDEO: “Phonics vs. Whole Word” [take 1]