The scientific literacy research shows conclusively that synthetic phonics (building words from sounds) is the best way to teach early literacy. Prime Minister Gillard (when she was Education Minister) declared that phonics had won the reading wars.
However, many Australian schools are still starting off teaching five-year-olds literacy by getting them to memorise lists of “sight words”, and encouraging them to try to independently read books containing lots of words that are simply too hard for them.
This is disappointing, but I guess old habits are hard to change. Sight words/whole language is what most teachers were taught at university, and schools are still full of teaching materials based on this philosophy, so change was never going to happen overnight.
To understand the problem with “sight words” and “whole language”, you need to understand a little bit of the literacy science.
Dual Route, Cascading
Here’s a gross oversimplification of how reading works inside your head (with apologies to researchers for horribly blunting their precise instrument for a lay audience). Efficient reading happens via two interacting processes.
1. Words are decoded via sounding out (the “graphophonic route”).
2. Some words – the common, familiar ones – are then memorised and read via the “lexical route”.
These two routes interact in a complex, cascading way, providing checks and balances for each other. (If you want more on one model of how this works, click here).
Skilled readers DO constantly need to decode
Of course to have memorised a word, you have to have seen it a few times before. The argument goes that once you’re a skilled reader, you will have memorised most words, and won’t need to decode words very often.
To test this theory, go down to the local shops, which are full of words like this:
Such words are not taught in school, and can only be read by sounding them out. To read the first one, you need to know about words like “cheque”, “mosque”, “torque”, “boutique” and “technique” (a bigger list is here). Things in shops also tend to have brand names like these:
I have a computer full of photos of brand names that are not taught in schools, which today’s children are surrounded by from morning till night. Walk around a supermarket and let your mind boggle about how they might all be memorised.
Then there’s Harry Potter’s Quidditch and Dumbledore and so forth, and Pokemon’s seemingly millions of characters, my favourite of which is the Snorlax.
That’s before children try to read the street directory or the Footy Record or any of the dozens of other printed materials that contain words they have never seen before, and that keep changing with every new draft, movie, TV show, craze, newcomer’s name and internet search.
Memorising “sight words” won’t give learners the tools to tackle all these.
Regularly-spelt words on “sight word” lists
A lot of the words on lists of “sight words” are not even remotely irregular anyway, and could easily be taught via a sounding-out strategy. This would give learners two for the price of one – a new word, and a strategy for tackling lots of other words.
Just because you teach a word via sounding out, doesn’t mean you have to sound it out forever. The risk you run in teaching a child to memorise words as wholes is that their brain won’t treat them as language at all, it will treat them as pictures.
This means it puts them in an inefficient and far-too-finite storage system. Kids who do this often seem to be learning to read OK, but hit the wall in about Grade 2 when they run out of visual memory for abstract symbols.
Confusing children with the Golden Words
Let’s have a look at the “Golden Words”, which are intended for memorisation by absolute beginners:
- The words “it”, “and”, “in” and “that” are utterly regular, so why anyone’s memorising them is a mystery.
- The words “I” and “be” are likewise regular, once you have learnt that vowels behave differently depending on whether they are followed by a consonant (compare “hi” and “hit”, “be” and “beg”).
- The words “was” and “a” encourage beginners to think that when you see the letter “a”, maybe you say the sound “o”, or “uh”? (you do, in some words, but learners should be learning the most common patterns first).
- The word “of” encourages children to think the letter “f” represents the sound “v”.
- The only words containing the letter “s” – “is” and “was” – promote the idea that the letter “s” represents the sound “z”, which it often does at word endings (see this list for more examples), but that is not usually explained or demonstrated. When children are learning sounds and letters, do they believe the teacher telling them that “s” is a “s” sound as in “sit”, or these words and their own senses, which tell them it’s a “z” sound?
- The word “to” is one of the few words that has “o” representing an “ooh” sound (click here for the rest) , and contradicts what they learnt about the letter “o” from the word “of”, and what the teacher tells them in lessons about the alphabet.
- The word “the” suggests that the letter “e” represents the sound “u” (as “the” is usually pronounced with the unstressed vowel, see more examples), which can be really, truly confusing, and it would be much better if we stressed this word for beginners (“thEE”) and studied it with words like “me”, “he”, “she”, “be” and “we”.
The message a young child gets from these words is: English spelling is very complex and confusing, the teachers tell you one thing in alphabet lessons, but this sample of important words and your senses tell you quite another.
This means there’s always plenty of work for speech pathologists like me, when desperate parents bring their confused children in, so they can learn how to pull words apart into sounds, blend sounds together into words and understand how sounds in words are represented by spellings.
But it causes a lot of misery, and it’s preventable misery, so I hope the readers of this blog will put their shoulders to the wheel and help slowly, slowly turn this educational ship, and put me out of work (speech pathologists can do plenty of other things).