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The Kill and Drill of Sight Words

As the school year commences, students will again bring home lists of sight words to drill. Most schools identify the words based upon the Dolch List, which includes 220 high frequency words. It is widely believed that drilling these words by sight will enable students to recognize the words "instantaneously" and aid their development in becoming fluent readers. Many educators believe that knowing how to sound out these words will hinder students' ability to read fluently. In addition, it is commonly thought that most of the Dolch words cannot be logically explained, though this is not true.

Therefore children drill sight words with flashcards, in readers, through games, writing activities, and repetition. Students are expected to remember how to read each word without additional clues.

Sight words are also sent home to be drilled by parents. It is parents who often observe that their children are guessing randomly, feeling frustrated, and mixing up words. This leaves many parents struggling to make sense of their child's reading difficulties.

With this "kill and drill" approach of sight words, it is no wonder students are frustrated, and that they rely on guessing.

Consider the words below - taken from the Dolch List. Try to imagine reading each word, without any understanding of the code. Notice the minor variations in shape from word to word. Without understanding the logic behind these spellings, learning to read these words is a difficult task in subtle visual distinctions and in visual memory.

thank - that - the - their - them - then - there - these - they - think - this - those

has - had - him - his - her - here - help - hold - hot

Put yourself in a child's place for a moment. Without knowing something about sounds, how would you memorize them and not mix them up?

The Dolch List was first published by Edward William Dolch, PhD. in 1948. Thankfully, reading research has progressed a long way since that time! Due to powerful brain imaging studies performed at Yale by Dr. Sally Shaywitz, we now know that all good readers are using the language and auditory centers of their brains as they read. We can now see that strong readers are decoding each sound so quickly it appears instantaneous - they are not reading whole words. Rather, they are rapidly decoding the sounds.

Struggling readers are using a different area of the brain thought to be associated with higher order thinking (educated guessing) and visual memory. Fortunately, functional MRI studies also show that with as little as 80 hours of systematic instruction in how to sound out words, not only do students' reading scores drastically improve, their brains are rewired to reflect the fact that they have become strong readers.

Asking young students to memorize 220 word pictures that have minimal variation between words is a daunting task.

When the English language has more than 2 million words and well-educated adults need to master 200,000 words, it is time we teach our children the 106 tools which unlock the meaning to 98% of these words.

It is time to leave behind the kill and drill and empower our teachers. This will not happen through more laws, more spending, or blaming teachers. Change will occur when all citizens join the effort to break the myth that English is illogical and outdated. It is time we begin to seek answers for how our words are read and spelled and together revolutionize reading education. Only by joining together will we reverse the fact that 68% of students in eighth grade read below grade level and ensure that all our nation's students become strong and proficient readers.

Let's remove the kill and drill of sight words from schools and begin to teach children the logic of the code which unlocks 98% of English words!