Friday, June 20, 2014

Hooked on Phonics? That's So Twentieth Century...

I had never heard of "sight words" until my son Connor came home with a list comprised of them from daycare, tasked with committing them to memory. 

While I think it might be useful at his stage of development (age 4), the idea that sight words, or "Whole Word recognition," could supplant phonetic comprehension in developmental literacy is just incredibly stupid, and for our society (our federal education overseers, in particular) to buy into that stupid notion wholesale just guarantees that our society will only become more illiterate and stupid in the future. 

Forgive my lack of perspicacity, but stupid seems the most fitting term to describe any endeavor suggesting that phonics is not a superior path to literacy than sight recognition of "Whole Words."  Seriously, the study of "Whole Words" is  apparently a thing.  

And yet, here we are, and this simple fact must apparently be explained.  Doing just that is Bruce Dietrick Price over at American Thinker.  If you have even the slightest interest in how our youths are being educated, I suggest that you read the piece in its entirety, found here

But here is, what should be, a rather convincing snippet:

Whole word experts have created numerous gimmicks... They do a picture walk, a pre-read, a paragraph-by-paragraph discussion of what might be in the book.  By the time the child comes to "read" the book, he can answer questions about "meaning."  And if he can extract meaning, then according to these experts, he can "read."  What a con.  

Imagine that this is a nine-word sentence in a language that your child is going to learn: $ ^ # * ) = @ ! &, pronounced "Dick and Jane like to play in the street."  You'll find that it's quite a lot of work to memorize those nine symbols  so you can read that sentence.  You'll also find that if someone reverses the symbols, or adds new ones, you will be confused very quickly.

This is typically what happens to Whole Word victims in the second and third grades, as they try to go from 100 sight-words to 300.  The common expression you hear is: "They started off so well, but then they hit a wall."

Isn't that cute? Little children are hitting a wall. Splat, splat, splat.  And big adults are making lots of money giving them interventions.  And so the lucrative con continues.

Systematic phonics (i.e., nothing but phonics) is the only way to go.  If your children are at a school that uses any of the following terms, start fighting back: sight-words, Dolch-words, Fry words, high-frequency words, picture clues, context clues, whole language, pre-read, picture walk, guess, skip ahead, balanced literacy.
Why are there so many of these bogus phrases? Simple.  For the last 75 years, the Education Establishment has been selling a bogus reading method.  Some people figure it out.  So the Education Establishment has to come up with new slogans and clever new marketing phrases.  That's why we have all the slop.Meanwhile, in all that time, phonics was called phonics and still is.  When something works, you don't need to fake it.

PS: Common Core is guilty of perpetuating Reform Math and Whole Word.  Eliminating both is the prerequisite for educational success.

Now, I am not so invested in the logic of this appraisal that I could suggest that sight recognition has no place in language instruction. In fact, literacy can never be achieved unless some measure of sight recognition can be retained.  Individual letters that comprise single words, after all, have no meaning unless the letter's form on the printed page forces the brain to recall the letter's purpose and utterance in the grander scheme of language.  But phonetic fundamentals must be in place, if for no other reason that we are human beings.  We naturally recognize patterns, and those patterns often dictate our thoughts.  Language is the most basic example of that simple fact in human nature, and phonetics directly caters to our need.

And I will never suggest that alternative teaching methods should not be exercised in situations where individuals have specific difficulties in grasping written language from the phonetic angle.  What I am suggesting, without the slightest hesitation, is that such practices should only be employed for those specific individuals, rather than the wholesale razing of a phonetic approach.  Phonetic learning of language is undoubtedly the most effective means of our bringing the knowledge, and indeed, the gift of language comprehension and understanding to our future generations as a whole.  This is true with English, and we find that it is even more so with Latin-based languages such as Spanish and French.  But when a federal edict, like Common Core, promotes the alternative for all children in public schools, it is absolutely a cause a cause for concern.       

So, if you're like me, the next thing you'll want to do is rush home and explain, "Ph" indicates a "fuh" sound, and that's why "phone" is pronounced as it is, son. Not because it's a visual singularity that you had to memorize."  Because that may very well be instruction that he is not getting in school.

William Sullivan


  1. Sight words. We're back to that? That's the method that was taught in schools when my kids were learning.... 30 years ago ( imagine your 7 year old trying to memorize. There has been angst because kids can't read, and they want to do this again?

    But then I suppose we should understand that the kids then, are the teachers today.

  2. ( imagine your 7 year old trying to memorize... I was deleting that..

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  4. I just ran into this blog post almost a year after it was done. Thanks for discussing my article. I want to mention that, if anything, the situation is worse. Here is a school system in Kentucky trying to make sure that the state stays permanently backward.... The experts there just casually promote sight-words as the besest thing ever: