Can You Read This? (How Sight Words Cause Dyslexia)

greek-dorothy

If your child’s school is using sight words instead of intensive phonics for teaching reading, this is how the text of even a simple children’s book would look to your child. The child might be able to pick up a few words here and there. The child might figure out that the story had something to do with a farmer, a door, and a floor. If there were any pictures, the child might look to them for clues. But the child would not be able to draw any meaning from the text itself. In other words, your child would not really be able to read.

This paragraph is the opening paragraph of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. I put all but the commonly taught sight words in Symbol font, so that they appear in Greek letters. Here’s the whole text in English letters:

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds.

The paragraph goes on:

Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar–except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.

A child who has mastered phonics can easily read this simple paragraph. By reading it, the child may learn a few new words. For example, the child may be able to guess that lumber is wood. The child can also figure out that a cellar is like a basement, and that cyclone and whirlwind mean the same thing, and that a whirlwind is dangerous. The child would also learn that life was hard for farming families in Kansas around 1900, when the book was written. In contrast, a child who has mastered the 220 most common sight words, plus the 100 most common nouns, but has a poor grasp of phonics would be unable to do more than pick out a few words in this text. The child’s eyes will dart all over the page, looking for clues, instead of tracking from left to right. The child would have no clue that the book is about a girl named Dorothy who lived in Kansas.

The advocates of sight-word approaches to teaching reading claim that they are teaching children to read for meaning and to enjoy reading. Yet as this example shows, they are not even teaching children to read. Even the students who have managed to memorize a few hundred sight words cannot read a real book, not even a children’s book. That is why sight words cause dyslexia.

The advocates of sight word approaches claim that they want to teach children to enjoy reading. But until children somehow figure out that letters stand for sounds, so that they can sound out words like midst and lumber and whirlwind, they cannot read real stories. Until then, any attempt to read will be a frustrating, humiliating, pointless ordeal.

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