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Why Sight Words Are A Problem

Updated on March 26, 2011

Dolch Words Are Difficult... A Chaotic Visual Jungle.

Look At English Through A Child's Eyes

In 1955, Rudolph Flesch wrote a book that disagreed with conventional wisdom. He took on the entire Education Establishment, which hated him to his grave. My own conclusion is that he got everything right. (If you have never seen "Why Johnny Can't Read," please find a copy and read the first chapter. Everything is there, plainly and simply.)

Remarkably, the Establishment persisted in its folly, and today we hear endless propaganda for Sight Words, Dolch Words, Whole Word, etc. (This thing has many aliases.)

My own take is that this propaganda works only because parents, fully literate and comfortable with books, NO LONGER RECALL how confusing the reading process is at first.

The first picture at right shows what English looks like to the young child. (Read the sample in the usual way, left to right. The letter-shapes, however they may be turned, are not user-friendly and they are not memory-friendly; that's the main thing to dwell on.)

But the schools expect children to memorize these words as GRAPHIC SHAPES or CONFIGURATIONS. Doing this requires a lot of work. Many children give up. In terms of difficulty, it's like memorizing phone numbers. How many phone numbers do you think you could memorize (with instant recall)? Probably not even 50. But the schools want a child to memorize HUNDREDS of sight-words...It gets worse. Unlike numbers, English words come in MANY forms.

Note the three versions of "the." Having memorized "the" one day, would the ordinary person even realize the following week that "THE" is the same word?? The letter-shapes change drastically. How could anyone suppose that "e" is the same thing as "E"? "e" looks more like "o" or even "d." It certainly doesn't look like "E."

"The" is an easy short word. A somewhat longer word like "bright" illustrates the endless visual confusion that will confront the sight-word memorizer.

Even now, you may be having some sense of how the public schools have created 50,000,000 functional illiterates and a million dyslexics. English letters and words are so similar; and they shift constantly. I don't think that Sight Words are a feasible way to teach reading. A small percentage of people with photographic memories might make it work but ordinary children are simply destroyed.


Another reason that the Education Establishment has been able to perpetuate this folly is that Whole Word is a complex mix of sophistries. Dozens of long books have been written explaining why it's wonderful. Explaining briefly why it's not is a challenging project.

For an essay on Sight Words, see the link just below.

Below that are two YouTube videos (all graphic) that attack the matter from different directions. The shorter one (only 3 minutes) is first. The second one is quite complete but somewhat intense, partly because of the soundtrack--but you can turn that down.

More resources are at bottom.

Just Say No To Kindergarten Sight Words

Dolch & Dyslexia

Reading Resources (my site) has about 8 articles on reading. The best gateway is "42: Reading Resources."

The YouTube videos are two of about eight dealing with reading (and another 30+ dealing with education). Here is my YouTube channel: (look to the right where it says "see all").

Last year I asked nine of the world's leading experts to give me a statement about reading today. If you are just beginning to investigate reading and reading theory, this article is a great starting point. All the phonics experts are here, and each one comes at the subject from a different perspective. "Nine Reading Experts Explain The Sad State Of Reading."

The best single thing we can do for American education is to ensure that all children know how to read by the age of six or seven. Phonics routinely delivers that. Whole Word promises only that children might read some day, or maybe not.

Bruce Deitrick Price


Try To Read This

PS: It's Actually Worse Than You Think

To really understand what I would call the monstrous stupidity of Sight Words, you have to look for a few minutes at its history.

When Whole Word was king (roughly 1935-1995), children were not encouraged to learn the alphabet or to understand the concept of syllables. Phonics was taboo.

Paul Witty, one of the leading experts, said circa 1950: “The young child...reads groups of words. He doesn't read words individually--and then put them together to make sense. He grasps phrases, then sentences, that express a complete thought...Teaching the preschool child the ABC's so that he can spell out words isn't generally a good idea. Good readers don't spell out words, for one thing. They learn to recognize them as whole words.... Learning to pay attention to individual letters will only slow up the child's progress later.” That's the official dogma.

So it’s clear that the child must memorize whole words. What’s not clear is that doing so is EXTREMELY difficult and requires relentless memorization and writing of the words. The Education Establishment dealt with this difficulty by pretending that it wasn’t there. Children were supposed to read “See Dick and Jane” a few times and their brains would remember those word-designs. Which is simply not true except for those rare people who have very sticky memories.

But this whole gimmick got even worse. Here is what one of the most famous Whole-Word advocates advised (circa 1970) that children should do when they encounter an unknown word: “The first alternative and preference is to skip over the puzzling word. The second alternative is to guess...”

So now you can imagine what was happening in elementary school classrooms all across the country. Children knew only a few dozen or a few hundred words; and they rarely knew any of them perfectly. Meanwhile, they were told that-- at the first hint of trouble -- just move on ahead to the next word.

And that’s when you have real disaster. What sight-word readers end up doing all the time is searching desperately ahead for something they recognize, for a familiar face, so to speak. Meanwhile they’re skipping over important words. They’re guessing at others. And because they don’t know phonics, they have no way to be certain about anything.


Look at the sample at the top of this column. Plunge into it as though you’re about to find a familiar design. You might start to feel the first sensations of dyslexia.

Almost all so-called dyslexics report that words seem to “move on the page.” Probably they move on the page because the child’s eyes are moving forward over things that can only be half-processed. So there's a glut of information the brain doesn't know what to do with. I suspect a sort of cognitive white-out occurs. All those little chicken-scratchings (English letters) become like glints on the surface of water. (This paragraph was inspired by letters I've gotten from dyslexics.)

A real reader, for example, sees united, understands it, puts it into memory, and moves forward, as confidently as a child walking on a pathway made of large flat rocks.

But a sight-word reader can rarely have this kind of certainty. That united design looks a lot like unites, kites, knitted, unity, night. under, undies, only, etc.

This helps explain why sight-word readers, who have been taught to guess, often come up with words that have no connection to what’s on the page. Meanwhile, they leave out crucial words that are there. In short, reading becomes impossible. Now you can understand how this country might have 50,000,000 functional illiterates.

Now you know why Siegfried Engelmann, one of our greatest educators, said, “What dyslexia? I call it dysteachia.”

PPS: Unbalanced Literacy

The Education Establishment is dealing with all this craziness by pretending to retreat. The new dogma is that phonics is often helpful and the best approach is a mixed or eclectic approach.

Here's the problem. For the kids in kindergarten or first grade, nothing has changed. They are still started off with sight-words, several hundred of them. Google Dolch Words for third or fourth grade, and you will see that these students are clearly illiiterate at the age of nine or ten.

The official dogma is that children must learn 300 Dolch Words perfectly--that is, with automaticity. Which rarely happens. For a discussion of the problems, see "44: The Myth of Automaticity" on This article might be a little technical, but it's good material for anyone involved in the teaching of reading.

The final piece of information that anyone needs is to recall that Chinese, for one example, is a language of "sight-words" (let us put it that way). I even get comments from Koreans on some of my YouTube videos complaining that "Koreans learn their sight-words, so what's the big deal, why are you so dense as to think that Americans can't do the same thing???!!!" But factor in that memorizing 5,000 Chinese characters is considered a huge accomplishment and takes 5-10 years. English, however, is a vast language, and you need 50,000++ words to be really literate. But even that killer is not the killer. Oriental ideograms were originally designed as pictures-to-be-memorized. They have distinctive looks. And they don't change. Memorize one of these things, and you've got it.

But glance through an American newspaper and you will see a language with a totally berserk graphic exuberance, with literally thousands of typefaces and an infinity of orthographic possibilities. Phonetic readers rip through all these differences as if they are nothing. But make your kids memorize Dolch Word and then let them loose in a newspaper. They won't recognize half the words they supposedly know.

That's because the English alphabet was never designed to be memorized as visual graphics, but read as phonetic symbols. Completely obvious, isn't it? So you have to wonder--I certainly do--what sort of people would pretend otherwise? Whole Word, more than any other piece of evidence, convinces me that we had an Education Establishment that was up to no good.


New Hub is a quick introductory course in how to teach children to read.

"They Need To Read. FIRST STEPS For Teaching Children to Read."


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    • peachpurple profile image


      2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      Wonderful hub, I used to be slow at learning when I was young, it takes a lot of effort from the teacher to guide me

    • BruceDPrice profile imageAUTHOR

      Bruce Deitrick Price 

      5 years ago from Virginia Beach, Va.

      To: Felisa. Thanks. This is also good for starting out:

      "Preemptive Reading"


    • Felisa Daskeo profile image

      Felisa Daskeo 

      5 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      Great share. I am an educator too in a country where English is only the second language. I have been teaching young kids for more than thirty years and I find reading the sight words a difficult task for the children. I use the sound out method to teach the three-letter words then let the kids read sight words step by step and I find this very helpful especially to children who are not English speakers. Great stuff and thanks.

    • pdxren profile image


      7 years ago

      Bruce: Enjoyed this hub and your reference to Siegfried Engelmann's work (Direct Instruction) over the years at the University of Oregon. His instructional design principles embodied in many excellent programs have survived many 'gold standard' experimental tests and massive field trials.


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