of the Nationwide Blend Phonics Campaign
The Elimination of Harmful Sight-Word Instruction
Problem with sight-words
For the Blend Phonics Campaign to be successful, it is necessary to understand clearly the serious harm that the common practice of requiring the memorization of sight-words as configurational wholes without reference to the sound values represented by the letters can cause to young students just learning to read.
Sight-Words promote whole-word guessing from context.
It is a strong conviction of the Blend Phonics Campaign that sight-word instruction is a hinderance rather than a help to the acquisition of high level reading and spelling skills. Refraining from teaching sight-words is a necessary first-step to maximizing the impact of good phonics-first instruction.
Many of the symptoms of dyslexia are indistinguishable from the sight-word induced whole-word guessing habit. It is kind of like the relativistic equivalence of gravity and acceleration. It is impossible for the moving observer to tell which is which. For want of a better term and to distinguish it from real dyslexia, we will call it “sight-word induced guessing.” It is an inferior form of reading, which seriously interferes with thought getting since misread words detract from the full, intended meaning of any passage.
Equivalence of Remediation
It is a corollary of “dyslexia equivalence” that remediation that has been found effective for dyslexia is the same as that which we prescribe for sight-word induced whole-word guessing. In fact, sequential, multi-sensory phonics programs such as the Orton-Gillingham Method – if taught first – would largely eliminate the need for later dyslexia remediation. Blend Phonics is such a program.
The term “sight word” can be confusing until one realizes that there are two completely different uses of the term: The scientific use and the popular use. The scientific use of the term referrs to ANY words that is recognized almost instantly with its pronunciation and meaning due to having been decoded many times in the past. The popular use referrs to a set group of words (usually of high frequency and grammatical utilty) such as the Dolch and Fry lists that are to be learned with whole-word memorization techinques.
Study References for Sight Words
In keeping with what we consider to be the seriousness of the issue of sight word instruction, this section will be the longest and most technical of all the sections on this website. Our opposition to teaching sight words may come as a shock to many people who are accustomed to hearing that sight words are an essential part of early reading instruction. A few years back, I Googled “sight words” for over 30 minutes. I did not encounter any websites warning of their danger, everyone was promoting them! I hope that everyone who works through the material on this page will keep an open mind and consider the possibility that one of the corner-stones of modern reading instructions may actually be a stumbling-stone to literacy.
Diane McGuinness expresses my exact sentiments when she wrote, “On the other hand, we know that time spent memorizing sight-words can cause a negative outcome by promoting a strategy of ‘whole word guessing.” This is where children decode the first letter phonetically and guess the rest of the word based on length and shape. This strategy is highly predictive of reading failure.” (Early Reading Instruction, 114, 115)
Maria S. Murry, Ph.D.
Raymond Laurita: The Spelling Doctor
- A Critical Examination of the Psychology of the Whole Word Method
- Basic Sight Vocabulary: A Help or a Hinderance
- Frustration and Reading Problems
- Errors Children Make
Samuel L. Blumenfeld
- Can Dyslexia be Artificially Induced in School? Yes, Says Researcher Edward Miller
- Miscue Analysis: Teaching Normal Children to Read Like Defective Children.
- Dyslexia: The Disease You Get in School. I have appended Dr. Samuel S. Orton’s overlooked 1929 article, in which he warned about the damage sight words were causing.
- The New Illiterates – Quotes. This document consists of quotes I have selected from Mr. Blumenfeld’s 1973 prophetically titled book, The New Illiterates. When you teach a sound-associaion system with sight-association methods, you create associational confusion.
- Why America Still has a Reading Problem. This 1974 paper is as true in 2015 as it was in 1974.
- Why Pictures in Reading Instruction are Harmful. I would suggest that the pictures in predictable texts encourage the unhealthy habit of whole-word guessing, especially when coupled with sight-words. In the intial stages of remediating students, I do not use any stories with pictures. Pictures for teaching phonics (speech sounds and sound to symbol correspondences) is another matter, the Phonovisual Sound-to-Symbol pictures are fine.
- Creating Dyslexia: As Easy As Pie. This is a chapter from Mr. Blumenfeld’s Revolution Via Education, available on the Chalcedon website. I have added valuable information on sight words at the end as well as links to other sources.
Helen R. Lowe
- How They Read An original and profound study based on a careful analysis of over 10,000 reading errors.
- The Whole-Word and Word-Guessing Fallacy
- Solomon or Salami
- Update on How They Read (1963)
Dr. Patrick Groff
- Sight Words: The Humpty Dumpty of Education
- Myths of Reading Instruction – and why they live so long
- A Book Review of Lucy M. Calkin’s The art of Teaching Reading
Note especially Dr. Groff’s comments on Heinemann publishing.
Professor William C. McMahon
The McMahon Syndrome. McMahon states his main point plainly,
The fact of the matter is that the child who is suffering from “severe reading disability” has not failed to learn. On the contrary, he has learned exactly what he has been taught and he has become a reading cripple as a consequence.
- Whole-Language High Jinks: How to Tell When “Scientifically Based Instruction” Isn’t. Guided Reading is especially mentioned as lacking scientific validity.
- Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of “Balanced-Literacy.”
- “How Spelling Supports Reading,”
Charlie M. Richardson
- Dyslexia Debate: Nature, Nurture, or Both? A Letter to Dr. Sally E. Shaywitz
- Reading: Phonics vs Whole-Language
Illiteracy in America: Understanding and Resolving a Grave National Crisis. A book length study of reading instruction in America.
- The Hidden Story – Choice Quotes. Geraldine Rodger’s 1996 The Hidden Story is one of the most important books I have ever read. It explains the psychology of the “meaning” method versus the “sound” method: sight-words-first versus phonics-first
- Case for the Prosecution: In the Trial of Silent Reading “Comprehension” Tests, Charged with the Destruction of American’s Schools. This is a link to my reading of Chapter 2, “Why Would Anyone in His Right Mind Want to Teach Sight Words, Anyway?”
Mr. Edward Miller developed a test to determine if students have artificially induced whole-word dyslexia caused by sight-word memorization. He called it The Miller Word Identification Assessment. There are two levels according to the student’s academic. experience. I have given hundreds of these assessments with the result that I am throughly convinced that Mr. Miller was correct. Here is a sample of a typical assessment: MWIA Sample. Here is my Summary Sheet. For those who would like to delve deeper into Mr. Miller’s theory and research, here is his 1999 Complaint to the FTC and his 2004 FTC Update. Comparing pre- and post-test scores demonstrates concusively the effectiveness of Blend Phonics to help students stop guessing and improve their reading. I call it a Poor Man’s fMRI. On February 14, 2016, I published a Revised MWIA that replaced the Dr. Suess words with Dolce List Sight Words. MWIA Explanation Video
My coworker, Elizabeth Brown, has created an excellent resource page on the issue of teaching sight words: On Sight Words.
This is a paper I wrote to try and show the difference between the way I teach reading with phonics-first and the way reading is typically taught in American classrooms with a combination of memorized sight-words, configuration clues, context clues, and minimum phonics clues. A Proposal for a Phonics-First Framework For the Diagnosis and Teaching of Educational Factors. This was a difficult paper to write and format, I trust you will find it useful.
Linda Farrell, Tina Osenga, and Michael Hunter
Comparing the Dolch and Fry High Frequency Word Lists explains the history, nature, and dangers of sight-words.
Vanessa Peters is one of the leading reading teachers in America today. She has produced a stunning YouTube video, Reading Progarms Missing Link, that everone interested in the subject of Sight Words needs to see.