Are Sight Words Detrimental for Beginner Readers?

untitledAlthough English is a phonetic language, there are still schools of thought that want children to memorize a certain number of words by the time they finish kindergarten.  Some people would argue and say that it couldn’t hurt, or it is part of a “Balanced Literacy” program.  But I would say it is actually extremely damaging while children are learning sound and symbol correspondences.

Kindergarten students are expected to see that letters represent and map to the sounds in our language, and eventually, they will learn that there is not always a transparent match.  Sometimes there are multiple sounds for a combination of letters and other times there are multiple letter combinations used to represent one sound.  This sequential system, if taught cumulatively and directly, will have children reading by the end of first grade.  However, if sight words are stressed in the early grades without the skill of “sounding out” a word being ingrained as the primary strategy for word reading, many students will begin to use whole word reading as the preferred strategy.  Some educators will support whole word reading and say that some children are visual learners, and this should be just another way to access print.  Why is sight word reading a problem?

One reason for not getting into the habit of memorizing words is it limits children from reading many more words utilizing phonics.  Once children understand the alphabetic principle, there are unlimited words at their disposal.  If they continue to think of reading as a memorization task, they are limited by how many words are taught and remembered throughout the school year.

It is also confusing to learn phonics and sight words at the same time.  Adults view this differently from young children.  Adults believe that children will need sight words for fluency, and introducing many words by sight will help them to become fluent readers.  This is not the case as the content becomes more complicated and the words are not in their sight vocabulary.  Children start believing that all words can be memorized and stop trying to sound out.  Struggling readers might be successful with this technique in the early grades because the text structure is simple and the words are relatively easy to figure out based on the pictures and context.  If they continue to think that this will serve them well in the upper grades, they begin to see quickly that this is a flawed strategy.  This is when the guessing habits start, and they choose not to read for pleasure.

Many educators will stress the importance of both types of learning, phonics and sight word reading.  This is usually a diplomatic way to satisfy everyone; give a healthy balance of a few different strategies.  I don’t believe this is the answer.  The message to young children should be that some words have something a little different that we need to look at carefully.  The Wilson Reading Program calls sight words, trick words.  There are actually very few words that are not decodable (able to be sounded out using phonics).  Usually, parts of a word can be phonetically figured out and only a small part of the word is truly tricky.  Giving children instruction that sends the message to read “all through the word from left to right” rather than memorizing the words should be the default strategy for children.

For many children, the different strategies will not matter and they will learn to read without a problem.  But for 20% of new readers, the way reading is taught does make a difference.  If your child is struggling, call us.

Faith Borkowsky, Owner and Lead Educational Consultant of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching, is Orton-Gillingham trained and Wilson Certified, and has extensive training and experience in a number of other research-based, peer-reviewed programs that have produced positive gains for students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADD/ADHD, and a host of learning difficulties.

High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching is located in Plainview, Long Island. Read about what we can offer you and your child: http://highfiveliteracy.com.

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