When children very first learn
that symbols can be used to represent ideas or spoken words, they begin
with the assumption that the whole symbol represents the whole word.
Because it is so difficult to memorize a complete, complex shape like a
word, children adopt strategies of seeking out salient features from a
word, and using those features to identify the word. This is why
children can recognize the word "McDonalds" when the M is represented by
the golden arches, but fail to recognize it when it is printed for them,
and this is why children often mistake words like LOOK for BOOK or WAG
for DOG. Children almost instinctively attempt to memorize words
as wholes when they can, and they seek out distinctive features of words.
Philip Gough conducted a brief study
that revealed these tendencies in children. He asked children to
learn some made-up vocabulary words, which he presented on flash-cards.
In the corner, on one card, he deliberately placed a thumb-print.
Children were very quick to learn the word which was on the card with the
thumb-print, but after the children learned that word, they typically did
not recognize it when the thumb-print was removed. Further, when
the thumb-print was moved to a different card with a different word, children
tended to erroneously call the name of the word that originally accompanied
the thumb-print. Even more revealing, however, when Gough presented
a card containing only a thumb-print, and no word, children still tended
to call the name of the word they had originally associated with the thumb-print.
Clearly this strategy for learning
new words is maladaptive. Children memorize a word that is highly
dependent upon context, and because most words share many visual features
with many other words, children who attempt to memorize words as wholes
tend to confuse words. Moreover, there is a limit as to how many
words children can memorize -- while most competent readers have a reading
vocabulary of around 50,000 words (see V
is for Vocabulary), children who memorize words as wholes are only
capable of learning a maximum of about 5,000 words in isolation.
In order to become competent readers
with reading vocabularies in the 50,000 to 75,000 range, children need
to learn to decode words rather than simply memorizing them. Decoding
words is much more generative and flexible and requires much less attention
and memory. Children who can decode words are able to break down
new, unfamiliar words, and arrive at a phonological code that they can
communicate with others (i.e. a child can sound out an unfamiliar word,
and, if necessary, ask others what that word means).
One important goal then in teaching
children to read is to encourage them to abandon their natural tendency
to memorize words as wholes, or to memorize salient features of words,
and instead to learn to break words apart, examine the letters and chunks
within the words, and decode them.
How, then, are we to explain the
time and effort spent teaching children to memorize words? An often
stated goal of many reading teachers, reading programs, and even state
standards documents, is that the teacher will enhance the child’s repertoire
of "sight words."
The concept of sight words has foundations
in the "Look-Say" approach to reading instruction -- the idea was to teach
children to simply memorize the most common words in written English on
the assumption that memorizing the most common words in the language would
give the child a leg up when attempting to read connected text. A
child’s natural tendency to memorize the whole word, or to memorize some
salient feature of the word, was encouraged by teachers, and to facilitate
the memorization of the words, children were presented with text that was
composed almost entirely of words from the popular sight word lists.
Children were able to read those texts, but usually had difficulty reading
more authentic text which was not primarily composed of sight words.
The term "sight word" is still with
us, and the sight word lists that were created before World War II, such
as the Dolch list, are still very popularly used. However, some people
have reinterpreted the definition of a sight word. Whereas a sight
word once universally referred to a word which the child had memorized
as a whole (without learning to decode it), now some have redefined the
term to mean something different.
Some use the term "sight word" to
refer to words which do not adhere well to the principles taught in phonics
lessons (e.g. WAS, THE, ONE, OF, SHOE, SAID), and which must, it is therefore
claimed, be memorized. These words have traditionally been called
"irregular" words, or "exception" words, but some are also applying the
term "sight word" to words in this category.
Some use the term "sight word" to
refer to words which have been encountered so frequently that a reader
no longer needs to laboriously sound them out. The first time a child
reads the word YELLOW, the child may struggle and have some difficulty.
Gradually, the child becomes more and more familiar with the word, and
eventually, the child is able to read the word without hesitation or conscious
thought. At the end of this evolution, according to this perspective,
the word becomes one of that child’s "sight words."
Neither of these applications of
the term seems appropriate. Words that can not be directly sounded-out
already have a designation, they are called exception words or irregular
words, and even these exception words are not memorized as wholes -- most
of the letters in exception words are "regular" and children still benefit
from processing these words at the letter level, chunking the words when
necessary, and applying knowledge of letter-sound relationships.
Likewise, the notion that sight
words are words which are processed so automatically that no conscious
thought is required also seems specious. By this definition, pseudowords
like BIP and FANK are sight words for most skilled readers because, even
though they have never encountered those words before, skilled readers
able to process them automatically without concerted effort.
The term "sight word" has a clear
definition, and adopting that term for other concepts only serves to confuse
the issues. If a child has learned to recognize a word without learning
to decode the word, then that word is a "sight word" for that child.
When a teacher encourages a child to memorize more words by sight, that
teacher is delaying the inevitable -- eventually, in order to become a
good reader, that child must begin processing words at the letter level.
There is no clear empirical evidence
that teaching very young children to memorize a few basic and common words
is harmful -- for very young children, this approach may actually help
to build a foundation and familiarity with text. However, it seems
clear that teaching children in the first and second grades to memorize
words only detracts from one of the primary goals of reading instruction
-- as early as possible, children need to learn to attend to the letters
within the words, and to decode the words, and children need to become
so proficient at this skill that words are decoded rapidly and effortlessly.