Sunday, November 24, 2013

Some May Call Me The Sight Word Nazi

Every chance I get, I discourage sight word lists amongst parents with young children. Why? I can't possibly know what I'm talking about? I'm not a reading specialist. Surely, they went to school to teach reading. They would know more than I do. Who am I to suggest such things?

The first thing we should recognize is that all educational approaches are just theories. While some are widely accepted, none of these theories have become law. These theories usually have been manipulated to show the theorist's desired outcome. Amazingly, our educational system is in the dumps while so many of these theories are "proven" to get results. Almost all, if not all, of these theories claim to be research driven.

Stance 1: Sight Words Are The Devil

At the time I decided to teach my child to read, all the programs I looked into for early reading were phonics driven. All of them cited research blaming the "look-say" reading method for the downward spiral of America's education system. They also reported that dyslexia was not a true mental disorder, but a reading impairment brought on by children using the look-say method of reading. Because these students are only remembering the shapes of words, instead of the sounds of word components, students can often confuse words. Also, imposing the order of letters would happen more frequently for those who don't know how to decode the word from left to right.

Stance 2: Sight Words Are A Necessity

Indeed, I thought sight words were the devil until I spoke with a reading teacher, a principal, and a reading specialist where I was working. They made points that I thought were valid. For example, there is the forever present reason given for the necessity of sight words- that some words can't be decoded but must be learned by sight. OK, that's a good reason. Then teachers everywhere will say sight words are necessary for fluency which is also aids in comprehension, yet another great reason for sight words.

Back To Stance 1: Those Devilish Sight Words

May the record reflect that while I taught school, I was a great academic teacher to all but my own child. Time just did not afford much reading instruction. We were blessed in that we spent time learning in between my teaching assignments and during the summers. At this time my four year old was almost a master at decoding CVC words, something that she was able to do when she was 3, but she wasn't at the point where she could pick up a book and read it, not unless it was a decodable reader.

Somewhat skeptically, I began to support the use of sight words, until... I had to test fourth grade students for remediation in reading. Quite remarkably, I had to test students of the teacher who touted the importance of sight words. Though I don't remember the exact word, I do remember that every person that I tested incorrectly "read" the word phone. Let's say that the word was prone. All of the students were using what the whole word resembled, instead of blending the phonemes to determine the word. Every single person said phone. Somewhere down the line they all must have learned phone as a sight word.

Here I was armed with all the ammunition my little heart needed to leave those pesky sight words alone. The Reading Lesson became our religious reading guide. At the end my daughter could actually pick up books, some of which were pretty hard, and read them.

Not quite a Nazi, but...

My position has softened just a bit. Do I think that every child should be taught sight words? Not in your wildest dreams. Can sight words be beneficial to some children? I think so.

When my child went to Kindergarten, she could read almost anything, but at first they wouldn't label her as such. Why? Because she wasn't fluent enough. Honestly, she had only been reading books for about a month. She was doing extremely well, but I knew what she was capable of reading and comprehending, and I wanted the school to acknowledge it. Soon, I learned not to care too much about what the school thought, but I also saw the value in her becoming a more fluent reader. This is where sight word lists could be extremely helpful.

Did we ever start working with sight word lists? Not really. We didn't even do what the school required. She came in knowing the words on the list, except for two. They ended up giving her the four first grade lists. Her teacher suggested all this sight word work. We just never had time to do it. I did occasionally, however, try to add decodable sight words to her spelling lists. That's all.

Because I wanted to give her a chance to practice her reading skills, we never dwelled on reading the same book(s) over and over again. This was probably really helpful in developing accuracy, but not at all helpful in developing fluency. In regards to fluency, I would have changed two things. We would have had special "repeat" books on deck, and I would have modeled fluent reading by reading to her more. Once she started reading it became all about reading practice. This is no longer the case.

Doing My Job and Teaching Sight Words

Last year, I taught PK4. I thought that it would be easier and afford me more time at home. Boy, was I wrong. At any rate, the curriculum called for sight words. In my opinion, most of the people were misinformed about sight words. One popular question among parents was, "How's she doing with her sight words." Somehow, parents believed that these magical sight words would mystically lead their children to the land of reading. No parent has ever asked about the blending of sounds. No parent ever asked me about the steps toward reading. Everyone only asked about those sight words. I tried to be as informative as I could without saying that these people have no clue in what it takes to ensure successful reading.

I do understand the buzz about sight words. Lots of kids can begin learning to read with only sight words. It's simple to include sight words in lessons. The turnaround time in being able to "read" one's first sentence/ book is irresistibly fast. My best "reader" in my class was the youngest of the students. She was the last to be moved into my class. On the first day, she sight-word-read circles around the other students. Why? Because she had 0 knowledge of letter/ sound relationships. She had not yet begun to identify the individual letters with their corresponding sounds. It was much easier for her to learn what the whole word looked like without the need to associate the individual letters with anything. That week, I constructed sight word books for my students (See. I can't possibly be a SWN.) Her mom was so proud that the child who had only been in my class a couple of days was already "reading." This student became disinterested with the exactness needed for true reading. While some of the others were starting to decode, with me, she never got so far. She began to disengage in lessons until sight word time. I'm afraid that she gained a false sense of reading accomplishment that could only be overcome with a good phonics reading program, though not offered to students in PK at that school.

Teaching students to read without the use of sight words can be taxing, but is rewarding. Honestly, I think it's hard to teach a phonics program to a group of students. I really would advise parents to start teaching their children how to read before they get to school. That way you can ensure that your child has the basic building blocks for good sound reading. A program/ book can be as cheap as 10 bucks. Choose an affordable but highly rated program and just get started.

I Actually Love Sight Words

My daughter and I do sometimes go over sight word lists, but I like to think that a sight word is word that becomes recognized by sight after it has been decoded several (maybe several hundred) times.Sorry, but there's no Nazi here.

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