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Teaching Words as Shapes Can Lead to Serious Reading Problems

We have a serious reading failure problem in America today. Too many students are failing to develop the proper reading skills required succeed in school. In the 2017 NAEP Reading Report Card, only 37% of grade 4 students could read at or above proficient level, while 32% could not even achieve basic reading proficiency. Reading problems are so severe, that California was sued by lawyers representing poor performing schools with a high number of students that could not read.

So why can’t our children read?

Perhaps the problem begins at home, where children may lack a literacy rich environment. More importantly, how reading is taught in schools is a major contributing factor to reading failure, and this is the result of relying on whole language learning rather than teaching phonics and developing phonemic awareness. Worse yet, is the teaching of sight words, and encouraging students to look at English words as shapes! This is akin to teaching English – an alphabet based language - as if it were a logographic language such as Chinese or Korean.

The Problem With “Sight Words

Sight words are high frequency words that children are expected to know by sight, and they are taught to memorize long lists of sight words in the hope that they will be able to automatically know these words without having to sound them out. While the idea sounds nice in theory, in reality, it causes more harm than good.  Perhaps redefining the term “sight words” from “high frequency words” to “words not easily decoded” would be appropriate.

The Dolch list of 220 sight words is widely used to teach children to “read”. Children are encouraged to memorize the list of words – to learn the words as a whole, rather than to decode and sound them out. However, the majority of the words on this list can be easily sounded out, and as such, they should be taught phonetically. The real problem here is that for young children just starting to learn to read, without phonics knowledge and phonemic awareness learning, they must resort to learning the words by shape memorization. 

Confusion of Words Shapes Leads to Reading Difficulties

Learning to recognize words as shapes will wreak havoc with many children’s reading abilities. It could quickly lead to confusion and frustration, and if you think memorizing 220 words is not so bad, then what about the other 170,000 words in the English language? A person needs to know about 3,000 words to be able to read 95% of all ordinary printed text. How successful will our children be at memorizing 3,000 word shapes? The confusion of similar words shapes causes reading problems, and it leads to skipped, inserted, and substituted words.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the Dolch sight words. Many of the words have confoundingly similar shapes, and below are just a few examples:

It is any wonder that we have so many struggling readers?

“Once a confused perceptual pattern becomes established, it becomes the child’s habitual response pattern for printed symbols unless replaced with a different approach.”[1]

We need to stop teaching words as shapes. Often times, when I work with struggling readers, I have to first help them break their old habit of looking at words as entire configurations, and teach them how we can figure out what most words are by the letters inside the words.

The Teaching of Word Shapes Everywhere

The unfortunate reality is that the teaching of sight words and teaching words as shapes is a prevalent practice in many places. All the earlier grades teach it. It is plastered all over the walls and whiteboards in the classroom, and it is given out as a recommended “reading strategy” in take home handouts. There are even worksheets, readily available all over the internet, that work specifically to train children to look at words as shapes!
As shown by the NAEP report, many students are failing to develop the necessary reading skills, and the consequences are wide-reaching. English is an alphabet based language, and therefore, English words should not be taught as logograms in logographic languages such as Chinese or Korean. In those languages, the only way for a person to learn to read, is through hard-line memorization of hundreds and thousands of individual characters. Unlike alphabet based languages, there are no viable means for the individual to sound out and decode unknown or unfamiliar characters. English has 26 letters and 44 sounds. Teaching through a combination of phonics and phonemic awareness development, we can teach children how to effectively decode and read the majority of words in English – even unfamiliar and unknown words.

>> Click here to teach your child to read today with a simple, systematic program that does not involve memorizing word shapes.


1. Basic Sight Vocabulary - a Help or a Hinderance? R.E. Laurita, Spelling Progress Bulletin, Summer 1966