“We encourage each student to take home a book and practice their sight words with their parents,” a preschool teacher recently informed me. Learning sight words, words recognized by sight instead of sounded out phonetically, is a critical part of a preschool curriculum. By the time students enter kindergarten, they are expected to expand their sight word vocabulary exponentially. But are they really reading?
It depends on whom you ask. The concept of “sight words” isn’t new. Every reader learns to recognize familiar words to a certain extent in order to save processing time. Common words like “the” and “an” are memorized so that we can read and process what we’ve read in a more efficient manner. However, a problem arises when words begin to be treated like images. Instead of decoding the word letter by letter, a student looks at the word as a whole. If it is in their “sight word” vocabulary they can recognize it. But, if the word isn’t familiar they have no way to comprehend it, let alone the sentence in which the word resides.
It would seem, then, that teaching a child sight words isn’t much more than teaching them any type of memorization trick. Not that long ago I came across the story of one mother who swore her two year old could identify letters on a screen using simple finger swipes. However, when tested, the toddler failed to recognize the letters on the screen, because test administrators changed the sequence of the prompts. The mother learned that her child did not, indeed, know their letters as much as he knew how to memorize a simple sequence of commands. Much the same could be said for sight reading. Children still too young to process the English language in terms of phonetic reading are simply memorizing pictures made out of letters. In other words, they aren’t reading at all.
But, the trick is good enough for public educators anxious for their students to pass federal assessment tests in the third grade. Sight words have become so over-emphasized in the curriculum that some schools have gone so far as to establish “sight word clubs” to award students who have memorized a radical number of sight words in order to be “better readers,” Yet, no one can answer whether or not these children can sound out new words they encounter, let alone comprehend the words they do know.
And what about the readers who fall through the cracks? Dyslexics have relied on sight word vocabularies for generations. When I asked one dyslexic friend what she thought of the push for sight words, she grimaced. “What’s the point? That’s not reading, that’s limping through school. To this day, if I can’t visually recognize a word, I’m lost and frustrated. No wonder even average kids find reading to be a challenge.”
According to WebMD, children ages 4-5 would be better off listening to Dr. Seuss and verbally playing with their own rhyming schemes than trying to recognize the words on the page. Children aren’t ready to process written language until they are roughly 6-7 years old. They aren’t reading to learn until they’re close to middle school. Pushing students to perform functions their brains simply aren’t developmentally ready to take on isn’t just fruitless, it plants the seeds of anxiety and contempt that lead to a wasted education.