Why You Should Not Start Teaching "Sight Words"
Super Readers Learn to Read Phonetically - Not by Memorizing Sight Words (part 3)
Continued from part 2.
In this 3rd and final part of our discussion on teaching sight words to children, I'm going to go in some detail and explain to you why it is a BAD idea to start teaching a child to read using sight words, and I'll provide plenty of examples to go along with it. First a little about my language background.
My dominant and most fluent language is, of course, English; however, my native language is Chinese. The unfortunate fact is that because I moved to Canada at a very young age, and while I speak Chinese fluently, I have difficulty reading it.
Do you know why?
Because Chinese is difficult to learn and because it is an ideographic language that must be learned by hard memorization!
Ideographs (such as Chinese characters) are graphic symbols that convey meaning. Because there's no way to "decode" ideographs, you can only learn it by memorizing, which makes it very difficult, and I can tell you that even being a native Chinese speaker, it's very tough to learn it without confusing the many similar characters.
English is Not an Ideographic language...
...and should never be taught as such!
Unfortunately, there are many misguided souls out there who insist on teaching words as a whole - through the teaching of sight words - and ignore instructions in teaching the "parts" which makeup the "whole"!
A child should NEVER start learning to read English through sight words and through learning only the "whole" word. English is an alphabetic language and reading should always follow a bottom-up approach where the child learns and discovers the "parts" first, and then learn to combine and connect the "parts" to derive the "whole".
What this simply means is that a child should always start learning to read by learning the letters, letter sounds, and through developing phonemic awareness to help them learn and discover the relatively simple mechanics behind reading English!
When a child is exposed to sight words prior to learning any phonics or receiving any alphabetic instructions, that child will respond to the entire or "whole" configuration and shape of the words. The child develops habitual visual patterning and tries to memorize words by cues and clues based on the word shape - the child does not learn the concept that the words contain individual symbols which connect together to form the entire word.
What would you rather do:
1) have your child memorize the shapes and configurations of hundreds of words, or
2) teach your child the mechanics behind reading and decoding where little to no memorization is required?
That's a rhetorical question.
Why Learning Sight Words Can Cause Problems
Indeed, it is the very fact that so many try to teach English words as ideographs that lead to such poor reading abilities in so many children and adults. I have prepared several word sets in English and Chinese below:
These example sight words are picked from the Dolch list, and as you can see, they look very similar, and for a child that has not learned the nuances of English and the alphabet, they will attempt to learn the word by its WHOLE CONFIGURATION! That is, the child will try to learn the words by its shape, just as how one would learn Chinese.
Assuming you do not know Chinese, please take a look at the above words list in the 3rd column numbered 1 to 5. What do you see? If you look through the list at a normal pace, can you easily spot the differences between the characters? Not so easy or apparent to distinguish the differences huh?! Especially, if you were to see these characters by themselves, you could easily mistaken one for another. Imagine you're a new learner and have no background or knowledge in Chinese, and you learned the 2 character in row #5.
The first character says "ren" meaning "person" and the second character says "ru" meaning "enter". If you had learned these characters, and then happen to see one of them, which is which? Will you know easily the different between "ren" and "ru"? Probably not, and you'll likely get them confused. Same with all the other examples, and I can list hundreds of these examples in Chinese.
Now we turn to the English sight words. There are also hundreds of possible examples where words have very very similar configurations. Imagine again, that you did not know how to read at all, just as a young child, and if you learned some words such as "then" and "them", or "there" and "three", or "full" and "fall", you could easily confuse one for the other!
Without learning the mechanics behind reading and decoding, a child (or adult) can only resort to learning (memorizing) the whole configurations of words - this is where problems arise, and this is what causes reading difficulties in otherwise perfectly intelligent children. Moreover, the blame of failing to learn to read is often placed on the child and/or parents, and rarely on the poor and inadequate methods used to teach that child! Ridiculous, I say!
But a child that learned through phonics and phonemic awareness will have absolutely no trouble at distinguishing the similar words because they can instantly see the differences in the "parts" which make the words different. For example:
on - /o/ /n/ an - /a/ /n/
then - /th/ /e/ /n/ them - /th/ /e/ /m/
With the combination of systematic phonics and phonemic awareness development, ANY parent can easily teach their child(ren) to read phonetically, and without resorting to any memorization of sight words.
Here, please watch this short video, and see just how well a 2 year old child can learn to read and decode after just 11 weeks of reading lessons - lessons that involve no memorization of sight words!
Well, that brings us to our conclusion of our 3 part series on teaching sight words to children, and I hope that I've put forth a convincing enough case such that you'll think twice before teaching your child to read through the use of sight words.
To learn more about a super simple and effective reading program that teaches children to read phonetically (at any age), please click the link below.