Sight Words or Phonics?

What’s the best approach to teaching children to read — sight words or phonics? Let’s take a look at Dr. Fry’s approach.

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I just read a blog that discussed some of the virtues of rote memorization and it reminded me of the old question about whether children should learn to read by learning sight words or by learning phonics. Sight words are memorized and often learned by drilling on them. The late Dr. Edward Fry produced a lot of materials that help children learn sight words, but he also wrote materials on teaching phonics and spelling.

He recognized that some of our most often used words in English don’t follow the rules of phonics. He is widely recognized for his list of 1000 Instant Words which are intended for children to recognize by sight after a series of exercises, drills, games, flashcards, and other memorization aids. Some of these words, such as in, on, he, be and fish, also obey phonics rules and can be sounded out, but when a child is first learning to read, it’s discouraging to have to stop and sound out every word and lose track of the meaning. It’s very satisfying to be able to read a complete sentence or story without having to stop often and sound out words. Think what it would do to our adult reading speed and comprehension to have to sound out every word we read? By learning the most common words by sight, a child or illiterate adult can have the satisfaction of really reading, not just decoding words. She will understand “A doll is a toy.” if she reads it at a normal speed instead of struggling over every word.

On the other hand, as a child continues on the path of learning to read, it would be burdensome to have to memorize every single word he will ever need to read. Dr. Fry recognizes that understanding the sounds attached to letters is also necessary for a child to become an and independent and proficient reader. He brings these two approaches together seamlessly in his Spelling Book Grades 1-6: Words Most Needed Plus Phonics.

Let’s look at the first lesson for first grade. Only ten sight (or instant) words are introduced: the, of, and, a, to, boy, girl, man, woman, baby. Though the teacher is given teaching suggestions, this is not a workbook. The student pages may be reproduced for student use, but the teacher decides how to best teach the words.

Under the list of words is a list of phrases using the words so that the students can practice seeing and reading the words in context. Samples of the phrases are man and woman and to the boy and girl. Students could practice reading these aloud and the phrases could also be used for dictation exercises, since this book also teaches spelling.

The last parts of the lessons involve age-appropriate word study. In the first grade lesson we used as an example above, students learn about how the phonogram an is used in man, rancan, and pan. Then they learn in the phonics section below about the short vowel a. The included notes to the teacher in these sections spell out the rules and explanations, but I seriously doubt that the first graders will have to memorize, “The Closed Syllable Rule states that when the syllable ends in a consonant, the single letter vowel is short.” (Examples are taken from Lesson 1 of the book linked to above. ) At this stage of the game, the student may not know or care about syllables, open or closed.

That's me, with my book at the age of three.
That's me, with my book at the age of three.

When I learned to read I taught myself in much this fashion. First I memorized a very simple picture book my mother read to me over and over and then I read it back to her. She knew I’d memorized it, but I knew which word was which, so I had learned some sight words that I could recognize in other contexts. My mother would tell me about the sounds that the letters made until I was asking her for the ones I didn’t know yet. I started asking my dad about the letters I saw in the headlines of his newspaper. I was only three, but I could read. By the time I hit first grade, I was sitting in the class library section reading whatever I wanted while the teacher taught reading to all the rest of the class except another student who shared my first and middle name, who could also read.

My mother was a wise woman who realized that although I was reading above grade level, I had holes in my phonics understanding, so she sent me to a private school for a semester to learn phonics in a systematic way. (This was in the late 1940’s, when the “look, say” teaching method was in vogue.) After my phonics instruction, I flew in my reading skills. I think I would have thrived with Dr. Fy’s approach, since I would have learned the sight words in and out of context, as well as the relationships of the sounds to the words I learned every week. Seeing those relationships brings this method of teaching beyond rote memorization to understanding. I think Justin Snider, the author of the blog that inspired this one, could live with this approach. Maybe he will stop by and let us know.

Is This What Might Replace Paper Picture Books?

What might be lost in the move from paper to digital picture books? Or will digital books improve the the experience of reading?

Cover, Paul Revere's Ride
Cover, Paul Revere's Ride

As you all know, I love picture books. So when I got this link for a digital picture book, I had to check it out. (The link is at the end, since I want you to finish this before you click. ) It heralds the possibilities of moving books from paper to digital form — possibilities for word play, matching, watching, and story telling. Young readers will be able to read not only left to right, but also see words moving right to left and up and down. Words can appear and disappear, or letters can glide into a word. Both pictures and words can move in any direction (often off the screen, so there’s a lot of scrolling to keep up with.) The producer of this book (Can I call him/her  an author?) points out that paper picture books are limited to only one dimension, and are unidirectional and static. The producer tells us that two things can remain in the move to digital books:  The reader reads and the reader controls the story. By controlling the story, I assume we’re talking about turning pages or clicking buttons.

So is the digital book better? I’m asking my self what the difference is between such a digital book and an animated story with subtitles. Picture book artists such as Thomas Locker, Ruth Heller, Patricia Polacco and too many more to mention offer not only a story, but a rich visual experience that would not seem to lend itself as easily to animation as maybe the work of someone who is simply bold and colorful. I would think it difficult for the subtle tones  of work done in oils to come through as intensely in digital form as on paper.  So I believe these digital picture books might rob young readers of a more desirable artistic experience.

As to the multi-directional feature,  it seems to me that this sort of reading is not good preparation for learning reading fluency and developing the necessary skill of reading from left to right. I think reading from left to right is a good thing — especially for the young picture book crowd. Some of the multi-dimensional effects gave me a headache as pictures zoomed in and out. I guess, though, that today’s children are used to that.

kingwhorainedOne virtue of these books is supposed to be that they offer opportunities for word play, matching, and watching. I think paper picture books can match that. Check out Marvin Terban’s books on word play. Or try The King Who Rained by Fred Gwynne (This link enlarges the image at left.) It’s full of illustrated homophones that will promote a chuckle. (It can be found with other concept books here.) As to matching, you don’t really need a story. There are already many games in boxed or digital form that offer that. As to watching, that’s also been done very well on paper. Go back to one of my older blogs and read the review of Over the Steamy Swamp. In that book, every one is watching and being watched.  Another book that involves watching is Rosy’s Walk by Pat Hutchins. It’s humor and irony will have young readers chuckling as they watch the fox watch the hen.

The last proposed advantage of the digital book is story telling. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. Any decent paper picture book tells a story, though some are definitely better than others. If the idea is that it encourages a child to tell a story, there are books that do that, as well. A good example is Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola. This wordless picture book follows a woman from the moment she gets out of bed, hungry for pancakes, until she finally eats them at a neighbor’s house. We watch her put on her apron, begin mixing ingredients, gather eggs, milk the cow, churn the butter, go out and buy syrup, walk home with dreams of mixing and cooking and  eating the pancakes, and arrive back to find her cat and dog have spilled the milk and broken the eggs. As she thinks of the pancakes she dreamed of, flying away from the platter, she smells her neighbor cooking some and decides to go and visit. Have your child “read” you this story if he’s not a reader yet, or write the story to go with the pictures if he’s learning to put his thoughts on paper. It requires imagination to “read” this book.

I suppose though, that the main reason I prefer paper is that paper encourages a child to linger over the pictures to appreciate the details, anticipate what comes next, and maybe even discuss the book with the person who might be reading it to him. Digital books, at least in this example, encourage speed and constant moving to keep up with the action. Although the producer says the child controls the story by clicking the “next” button, I imagine the child is in the habit of clicking next as soon as he finishes a screen, rather than lingering. So which is the most interactive experience? Clicking the button  or actually turning physical pages. Watching a screen and clicking, or talking to a real person who may be reading the book to you and discussing it as you go along. I’ll take the book, preferably on the mom’s lap with the child or children cuddling up to her as she leads them on an imaginative journey.

And now that link you’ve been waiting for to see the book.

Is What Children Read Important, or Is It Enough That They Are Reading?

If you have exposed your children to genuine book treasures, they will soon learn that all that glitters is not gold. They will learn to discern for themselves what’s most worth reading. It doesn’t have to be a case of children reading bad books or reading nothing — not if you start developing a healthy book appetite in your children early enough.

Today in the WSJ I read the following by Ann Patchett: I am a firm believer in the fact that it isn’t so much what you read that counts, it’s that you read….I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.

Should we apply that to children? Many teachers seem to think so. The general opinion seems to be that it doesn’t matter what a child reads, as long as he or she reads.  I agree only if parents and teachers have been striving since a children’s earliest years to  expose children to good literature through regular reading aloud. What and how a parent  chooses to read aloud  to a child greatly influences that  child’s own later choices.

Is What Children Read Important, or Is It Enough That They Are Reading?

I was fortunate in that my mother read to me often in response to my begging, and, of course, the begging was due to my earlier experiences of hearing the stories she chose for me. I also had two elderly ladies, both teachers with no children of their own, who were like adopted grandparents to me. They loved to buy me picture books. I still have some of them, and their choices helped develop my reading tastes.  By the time I was three years old, I had taught myself to read with a little help from my parents. I was dying to read stories without having to wait for someone to have some extra time to read to me. When someone finally gave me a very easy book with very large print and just a few words, I soon had it memorized because I’d heard it so often. Then I could go back on my own and study the words. I guess I was learning sight words without knowing it. Pretty soon I really could read the words and know which was which.

Somehow I also learned about letters. I would ask my dad about the ones in the headlines he was reading in the newspaper, and he always took the time to answer my questions. Someone probably also told me that the letters made sounds. The words I learned in the first book, I See a Kitty, which I can still recite over sixty years later, were like the Rosetta Stone to me. I could recognize them in other books being read to me, and then, after hearing the stories, I could go through the books on my own, looking for the familiar words and remembering some of the new ones through the context and illustration hints. This was how my reading vocabulary grew.

I See a Kitty didn’t have much plot.  Had it been my first book to hear I might have lost interest. But I had also heard Belinda and Father Christmas, Amanda (see my review of this here),  Marshmallow, by Clare Newberry, and many other books I’ve lost track of now.  So when I See a Kitty arrived, I already knew that learning to read was worthwhile, and I seemed to know that particular book was the key to my learning to read. From then on I read anything I could get my hands on, but the adults in my life made sure I could only get my hands on books that would feed my imagination, expose me to good art, and model the appropriate use of the English language. These books used complete sentences.  They helped me to reach for the sky instead of plunging me into verbal garbage.

In the late 1940’s when this was happening, there were not so many picture books available to children as today. We had the Little Golden Books. So I cut my teeth on The Taxi that Hurried; The Poky Little Puppy; The Saggy, Baggy Elephant; The Tawny, Scrawny Lion, and all the others.  Some of my favorites have titles I can’t remember, but all of these books introduced exciting new sounds and words — descriptive words  such as baggy, tawny, poky, scrawny, twinkly, drowsily, bashfully, lopsided– and an assortment of verbs to add to my conversations: yawn, stretch, tiptoe, prance, gobble and many more.  I was introduced to manners by Mr. Do and Mr. Don’t, who were created by Virginia Parkinson and Lowell Grant, a claytoonist in 1943.

By the time I was six I was an avid reader. On the Christmas of that year my Cousin Edna and Auntie Lucile gave me six Thornton Burgess books and I had devoured them in a week. I learned that toads can sing and  have beautiful eyes. I learned why the other animals respected Jimmy Skunk and didn’t mess with him. I also  learned about nature and human nature by meeting Sammy Jay, Chatterer the Red Squirrel, Old Mr. Toad, Reddy Fox, and the other inhabitants of the Green Forest and the Green Meadows.  The adults in my life learned that the way to my heart was to give me more and more books in the series.  And as I read each new book, my reading fluency improved.

After that, I met Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Maida, and the other popular series available at the time. They were not great literature, but neither were they pure fluff. They, too, helped develop fluency.  My favorite of these series was Maida, and my favorite in that series was Maida’s Little School — perhaps my first introduction to home schooling.

I have lost track of where my hungry mind went next. I remember the Bible-themed biographical fiction of Gladys Malvern. I unfortunately did not meet C.S. Lewis or Tolkien until I was a college student working in my local library.

Today parents and teachers are faced with an overwhelming variety of books when choosing reading material to read aloud or have around the house.  Some of it is excellent, some so-so, and some are uncreative combinations of words with wonderful pictures. Just as parents go through their children’s Halloween candy, they should also approach the varied books on the library and bookstore shelves.  Ditch what looks dangerous and issue the rest of children’s choices with moderation. You don’t have to read everything a child chooses. A little fluff won’t hurt your child anymore than an occasional candy bar or soft drink. But first children need to develop a taste for the milk, meat, and veggies of the book world — the books that will feed their imaginations, model the variety to be had in the words and phrases  of the English language, and introduce the kind of characters you’d like to have  play with your children.

When a child reads, he is entertaining the characters of a book, and if those characters are rude and disrespectful to others, that behavior will begin to seem “cool.” Real children can be engaging without constant disruptive or rude behavior. I’m not suggesting that only children too good to be true are suitable protagonists. Nick in Frindle and Dave and Lynsey in No Talking — both by Andrew Clements — are leaders of their peers, but they are also thoughtful and able to relate respectfully to adults.  Imperfect children also visit Narnia, but we can see they do have a sense of right and wrong. Compare them to Ivy and Bean, who seem totally self-centered and think nothing of lying, talking back, and being downright mean to siblings. Which of these children do you hope your child will most be like?

Ivy and Bean are popular with today’s children and on the reading lists in many classrooms. Your children will probably meet them if their friends do. But you don’t have to be the one to introduce them.  Read them something more worthwhile that’s a bit above their reading — but not interest — level. Read them the Chronicles of Narnia, Homer Price, Soup, Little Britches, Anne of Green Gables, whatever is age appropriate. Do read enough current children’s literature and interesting books for all ages to be able to make your own list of what you don’t want your children to miss, and you’ll probably discover there’s hardly enough time to get through those.  Explain there are many kinds of treasure, and books are one kind. Explain that you want to share the book treasure you have found that they might not find on their own, just as you introduced foods that have become their favorites they didn’t know about before.

In the early years, when you are still able, you can help your child cultivate a taste for the best books by choosing only the best to read aloud, at least most of the time. When you go to the library, choose books together. Your time is limited, so make it quality time. Take a book you really enjoy and read it with expression, using  many voices, to your child as you cuddle up on the sofa together. Talk about the pictures and discuss the characters as you would friends. Did they make wise decisions? What do you think they will do next? Do you think they might do something differently if they could go back in time? Whom do you like most? Why?  Did you dislike a character? Why? Which storybook character would you most like to meet in real life? Pretty soon, these discussions will come naturally as your child also asks you questions.

Your child will go through phases of reading what’s popular with his or her friends. Be sure and read some of these yourself for the purposes of conversation, because you do want to meet your child’s book friends who influence him. But continue to share your book treasure even after your child can read for himself. Share your thoughts on your individual reading with each other as another way of understanding each other. Then you will have a common frame of reference when you need to find outside examples of ways to solve problems or getting along with people. If you have exposed your children to genuine book treasures, they will soon learn that all that glitters is not gold. They will learn to discern for themselves what’s most worth reading. It doesn’t have to be a case of children reading bad books  or reading nothing — not if you start developing a healthy book appetite in your children early enough.

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