This morning, I'm posting a reply I made to this post on Read Oxford. It’s by Anne Castles, a professor at Macquarie University in Australia and it’s yet another egregiousYou’ll probably need to read the post before you read the reply.
In her blog, Anne Castles asks the question 'Are sight words unjustly slighted’? Here’s the answer, Anne: No! And here’s why:
I will say at the outset that there are so many ideas and assertions in this blog post that simply cannot be justified, it’s difficult to know where to begin. I won’t, therefore, try and deal with them all, only two or three.
Firstly, I would question the mantra of ‘phonics first and phonics fast’. It’s only half correct. ‘Phonics first and only’ should be the mantra; ‘fast’ is not possible because the English alphabet code is highly complex. It takes about three years for most children to learn the (roughly) 175 common spellings of the 44 or so sounds in English. It then takes a further four years of exposure and explicit teaching for the 50% of children who are likely to need this kind of explicit teaching if they are to become properly literate and to cope with secondary education (11-18 years). After that, we are further refining and building our understanding and knowledge of the code for the rest of our lives, especially when dealing with new ways of spelling sounds (e.g. the < bh > and < dh > spelling s that have come into the language through Indian English.
My second point of disagreement is the implied acceptance by Castles of Coltheart et al’s contention that reading is a dual-route process. The idea that there need to be separate processes is not supported by plenty of other research (see McGuinness, D., Beginning Reading Instruction for chapter and verse). But let’s take the examples Castles cites of ‘sail’ and ‘sale’ and claims ‘we would not be able to distinguish the two by sounding them out’. Why not? The first thing you need to be able to do is precisely to ‘sound them out’. As they are being decoded, the brain is searching the mental lexicon for meaning. Why wouldn't the two processes take place simultaneously as the word is being decoded? The two homonyms do sound the same – when you’ve decoded them – but the sound /ae/ in the words is spelled differently. If children are taught to segment and blend sounds in words to automaticity and they are taught that < ai > and the split spelling < a-e > represent the sound /ae/, they get to ‘sail’ or ‘sale’ without trouble. At this point, context does the rest.
Chomsky once implied that the English spelling system was well suited to the language partly because of this feature: there are thousands of homonyms in English and spelling sounds in different ways is one means by which they are ‘distinguished’. Teaching children the different ways of spelling sounds is also generative; teaching individual words, one at a time, is very, very time consuming, it is not generative and many children can’t do it (paired associate learning!). So, the way we answer Castles’s dilemma is to teach all the common ways of spelling the sounds in English over the first three years in school.
Next, and central to Castles’s argument, is her assertion that ‘phonological decoding... doesn’t always produce the right pronunciation’. Ah, the rock on which so many professors founder! In support, she offers us the words ‘the’, ‘I’, ‘said’ and ‘come’. Again, I ask why? The < e > in ‘the’ is a schwa. If a child is reading, they say /th/ /e/ or /th/ /ee/ and then normalise it. If they are writing, they need to be taught how and when schwas are likely to be a problem and how to overcome the problem. The professor obviously has no idea. I taught my five-year-old grandson how to deal with schwas and he then proceeded to read lots of words on the London tube and to tell me where the schwas occurred! It then took me about five minutes to teach him how to spell them - using a spelling voice when he is writing. Now here’s the thing: if you also teach children that many spellings can represent different sounds in the language and teach them which sounds they represent in a coherent and structured system, the problem evaporates. If you don’t believe that children can understand this idea, draw a circle and ask any four or five-year-old what it can be. They’ll tell you that it can be a circle, a moon, a pizza, a ball... If the spelling < o > can be /o/ in ‘hot’, it can also be /oe/ in ‘go’, /oo/ in ‘to’, or /u/ in ‘come’. The difficulty comes in teaching exactly which sounds it can be. So, the spelling < I > can be /i/. It can also be /ie/ as in ‘tie’. In ‘come’, the spelling < o > (for historical reasons) is spelled < o > and consonant plus < e > is a common way of spelling many sounds at the ends of words (sleeve, some, borne, engine, gauche, route – I could go on.).
And I could go on! Teaching ‘sight words’ is very dangerous because most teachers are not taught to teach phonics properly. Learning to teach phonics properly enables a teacher to dispense with all the nonsense of ‘silent letters’, ‘magic e’, ‘sight words’, ‘hard sounds and soft sounds’ and so on. Our orientation should be to teach from sound to print and NOT print to sound, to teach the essential skills, to teach children to understand how the code works, and to teach all the common sound-spelling correspondences (for starters).
If you teach phonics as it should be taught, even though it’s a complex business, you’ll never need to teach all these so-called ‘sight words’. And herein lies the danger: when teachers don’t understand the code, everything quickly becomes an excuse to teach ’sight words’, as well as all the 'cute' little tricks that don't work, and teachers quickly fall back into teaching Whole Language/Look and Say.
The real problem lies with the professoriate, many of whom also have no idea about how to teach children to read and spell and, furthermore, don’t actually get into a classroom and do it. It’s in the classroom that ideas such as teaching children lots of ‘sight words’ are put to the sword.