“Are we still teaching sight words?” asked the young mother of two. “I mean, Dr. Fussbottom, they were doing that kind of thing when my grandmother was a little girl. Haven’t we…I don’t know…, moved past that sort of old-school stuff?”
“A fair question,” he said. “It is always good to re-visit things we’ve done for a long time, and ask if it is still valid to continue the practice. Let me share a few things about sight words, and then I’ll let you tell me the answer to your question.”
“Alright,” she said. “But I’ve got kids waiting on me. You’ll have to make this quick.”
“Won’t take but a moment, I promise,” he said.
Gathering himself to his fullest stature and smoothing out his rumpled suit jacket, Dr. Fussbottom began.
“When a reader is attempting to decode a word we sometimes say he is trying to ‘sound out’ the word. This is one of several decoding skills that become very useful to a reader growing in his or her reading abilities. As important as these skills are, it is also very important for readers to instantly recognize certain words without having to decode them in any way. These are words that appear over and over again so frequently that the reader needs to be able simply to recognize them on sight without having to labor in any way to decode them. For example, consider the word ‘the.’ This is the most common of all words, and appears about 75 times every one thousand words. Other words like ‘of,’ ‘to,’ ‘and,’ ‘is,’ ‘it,’ ‘but,’ and ‘was’ are just a few of these very common words that also appear with great frequency. Think about the following astonishing facts.”
He was gathering steam now, and he could tell he had this young mother absolutely mesmerized. Or maybe she was just being polite. He was never very good at making those distinctions, so he decided to go with mesmerized. Lest he lose the heightened drama of the moment, he quickly pressed forward.
“The ten most common words make up 24 percent of all printed material. Just ten words. The 25 most frequently-appearing words make up about one-third of all printed material, and the top 100 words constitute about half of the words you will encounter in print. Can you imagine how much it would slow us down if every time we encountered these words we had to pause for a moment to decode them? Every time you came upon the word ‘the,’ it would be like a speed bump. Multiply that by the regular appearance of a couple hundred similar words, and you can appreciate the value of knowing these words immediately on sight.”
Dr. Fussbottom paused, trying to read the young mother’s face.
“I know you need to go,” he said. “Can I tell you just one more thing?”
“Sure,” she said. “Give me your one more thing.”
“Well,” he started. “To know a word as a sight word, there must be instant recognition. That means no decoding going on whatsoever. When we get to the actual testing of these sight words, students will be required to identify the word having seen it flashed for a second or less. The bottom line is that even though sight word mastery is only one piece of the reading puzzle, you can do your young readers an enormous favor by making sure they have truly mastered a few hundred of the most common sight words.”
He paused and waited, looking at her expectantly.
“Okay,” she finally said. “I guess I am going to need to find some flash cards.”
“Actually, no,” he said. “I mean, flash cards are okay, but there are many other ways to teach sight words besides flash card drill.”
He saw the surprised and pleased look on her face. She said that she really did have to go, but asked if they could meet again. She wanted to hear more about alternate ways to teach sight words. Dr. Fussbottom handed her his business card, and said, “Let me know when it’s a good time for you.” And with that he was off to catch his flight to Bratislava.