Why Most "Sight Words" Aren't Really Sight Words
Teaching The First 100 Sight Words (part 2)
Continued from part 1.
There are various lists of sight words such as the 220 Dolch sight words and several other lists of 100 sight words. Most of these are sorted in order of the frequency at which the words appear. For example, you'll see "the", "of", "and" at the top of these frequency based lists. I've seen some lists that work all the way up to the "sixth 100 sight words" - for a total of 600 sight words sorted by frequency and by grade level.
First of all, it's simply RIDICULOUS to expect a child, or anyone for that matter to try to remember such an obscene number of words! Anyone with some basic understanding of phonics and phonemic awareness will tell you that the majority of these so called "sight words" can be easily decoded and sounded out, instead of memorized.
So this really takes us to defining the term "Sight Words".
How do We Define Sight Words?
For the misguided, ill-informed, or for anyone that believes that the practice of memorizing hundreds of words constitutes learning to read, then you can define sight words as encompassing a broad range of different words - literally hundreds of them.
However, for anyone who understands the real mechanics of fluent reading, "sight words" would simply be defined as:
"words with spellings that do not conform to the normal rules of decoding and sounding out."
With the above narrow definition of "sight words", there's perhaps just a few dozen words which must be known by "sight" - words which cannot be sounded out. For example:
Most Sight Words are Easily Decoded!
Indeed, with the above narrow definition of sight words, most words listed - be it Dolch or 100 first sight words - can be easily sounded out! Let me show you some examples.
Here are 10 often seen words:
By our definition above, most of the words from that list aren't really sight words! They can be easily decoded! For example:
of - /o/ /f/
an - /a/ /n/
in - /i/ /n/
is - /i/ /s/
that - /th/ /a/ /t/
it - /i/ /t/
on - /o/ /n/
With the hundreds of so-called sight words in the Dolch list or other 100 sight word lists, you'll quickly find that there really are very, very few words which cannot be easily decoded.
The Limitations of Word Memorization
With the human brain capacity, there are limitations to how much one can remember and retain in their memory. As a child (or adult) progress their way through learning - or should I say MEMORIZING - word after word after word in these lists, what are the chances that they begin to forget some of the words they have learned or confuse some of the words they have memorized?
The odds are quite high! Almost guaranteed.
And that is why there are so many poor readers in the developed western nations. Had these individuals been taught to read through a system that teaches the mechanics of reading rather than teaching through the memorization of shapes, I'll wager that most of these poor readers will actually become super fluent readers.
And it's not just because of the memory limitations that we recommend against teaching reading through the learning of sight words, but at a deeper level, it's much more sinister where this method of word memorization based learning could potentially lead to reading difficulties, and it is a key reason why so many adults are illiterate or semi-illiterate! We'll discuss it all in the next part.