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Home » 9to5to9, School days

Rolling along with sight words. So what.

Submitted by on Thursday, 17 December 2009 No Comment
A full eight months before he's to start kindergarten, Boots already knows a half-dozen "sight" words.

I'd never say this to his face because it would break his little heart, but so what?

Yeah, yeah. I know. Sight words are the current currency by which prodigies are measured, the panic point that sends parents flying to the flash cards if they think their children aren't "learning" quickly enough.

Except Big Guy started kindergarten without knowing a single, solitary flash word ... er, sight word. He didn't fail to learn them because he's dumb. He didn't learn them because I didn't give a flip then either. He learned letters and sounds and stories instead. And guess what? He's reading well above grade level now.

How did he do it? The old-fashioned way, by actually learning to read. By growing up in a language-rich environment. By hearing a vocabulary far more extensive than anything he can read yet. By learning the largely shunned phonics as building blocks.

It's not the standard approach these days, I'll admit. But it worked when I was a kid, and it still works today.

For a 4-year-old, sight words are mere memorization. It's no harder than learning to recognize the Thomas or NASCAR logo - two things Boots has known for more than a year, but that doesn't mean he was reading them.

Sight words are a party trick designed to let the No Child Left Behind crowd pat itself on the back. "See? When we insist on quantifiable standards and insist that kids learn, they do."

Granted, the original theory behind sight words is not bad. Teach children to quickly recognize words they can't sound out because English doesn't always make sense - their, said, are. That theory, though, has morphed - or warped, depending on your perspective - into an emphasis on "high frequency words" - go, he, I. It seems to me that those words are fairly easy to sound out - what's so hard about figuring out the word "I"?

Ay, but memorization is quicker and easier than thinking. When you have to have them ready for their first standardized tests by second grade, time is of the essence.

Except, just as some babies learn to walk and talk before others, when it comes to reading some kids simply need the time and giving them only until second grade before we label them failures isn't long enough. And all kids need building blocks, strong fundamentals rather than a bunch of gee-whiz parlor games.

Yes, Boots' preschool will continue to develop his sight-word vocabulary over the next six months. I, meanwhile, will continue not to care.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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