Showing posts with label Sight vocabulary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sight vocabulary. Show all posts

Monday, September 1, 2014

La Dolch List Vita: Achieving the Good Life with Words

I was looking through your site hoping you would have information on the purpose and use of the Dolch word lists. I often see teachers spending time assessing students on their ability to read the lists.  Often, this information is placed on the report card and does not drive teacher instruction. I'm really looking for guidance on the true purpose of the Dolch lists, and wondering if students need to be tested on these words each trimester. Reading Street is our core program and has the high-frequency words embedded into the direct instruction with opportunities to check for mastery and provide feedback. Basically, do we need to test students on the grade level Dolch word lists three times per year?

Edward Dolch was a professor at Illinois State University. He developed his eponymously named list in the 1930s (what do you think, he was going to name it after me?). It was a pretty clever idea. He went through the basal readers of the time (preprimers through third grade) and identified the words that were used over and over, excluding the nouns.

Some of the words that he listed were phonically irregular (or rare) such as the and of. Others were decodable (e.g., be, came, did). But all of them were frequently used words in the schoolbooks of eighty years ago.

One thing that readers need to be able to do is recognize high frequency words on sight (hence, “sight vocabulary”). That just means that when a student sees a word, he or she can name it so quickly it seems like there must have been no thought or analysis (like seeing your best friend’s face and instantly recalling his or her name).

Initially, because beginners don’t yet have a well-honed understanding of words, brute force memorization can be helpful. As they progress, it gets easier to remember words (actually kids are less “remembering” them than analyzing them faster and faster), so such memorization becomes less useful.

Is it really a good idea to memorize words like that? The quick answer is yes, indeed. Remember, these words are going to come up a lot and so recognizing them easily and analyzing them faster than other words would be useful. Of course, the exceptional words that don’t follow common decoding patterns are going to have to be learned somehow, so memorization makes particular sense for them. And, the words that do follow the patterns become part of the basis that children use to figure out new words.

Of course, reading instruction and basal readers (um, core reading programs) have changed a bit over the past 80 years. Most children are being taught to read earlier than before and the curriculum moves a faster, too, than it did then. Frankly, I think there are better word lists to work with these days. You could make up one based on the program that you are using, but there is so much overlap among most of the lists that it isn’t a big issue (including if you decide to stay with Dolch).

My favorite is the list that Ed Fry put together based on a review of a 5-million word sample of English text. This list overlaps a lot with Dolch, but there are some differences (we don’t shall so much any more). Fry List

I believe that most first-graders should be able to master the first 100 words (which is even easier if they know 10-25 of these from kindergarten), and that by the end of grade two, kids should know the first 300. (Knowing them means that I can flash a word to the child and he or she can read it within 2 seconds). In a program that is requiring kids to read daily within instruction and that is teaching phonics well, that is a surprisingly easy goal to accomplish with most kids. (Remember these aren’t the only words students should learn—a first-grader should be able to read 400-500 words, mostly through their decoding skills)

In one suburban school I know, the principal took this idea to heart and she encouraged both teachers and parents to help with the word work. When she started the average first grader in her school could read 17 of these words by Thanksgiving; the next year, the average had climbed to about 75.


That’s terrific, but it is only one of many things students must accomplish. This kind of direct word drill and memorization should probably take only about 5 minutes or so of class time each day (of the 120 minutes of reading instruction that I would recommend). I don't believe they need to be tested on them three times per year.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The New Bane of Beginning Reading Instruction: Phony Rigor

I’m pro rigor. And I believe my bona fides are in order on that one. I’ve argued for teaching children to read very early for more than 40 years; even teaching my own kids to read before they entered school (and, yes, I’m working on the grandchildren already; their ages range from 5 months to 3-years-old). The time to teach young kids to read is when you become responsible for the child and not a moment earlier.

I’m not a big fan of some of programs like “Teach Your Baby to Read,” but only because I don’t think their designs match what we know about teaching young’uns. I admire their enthusiasm, however.
I’ve also have long argued for reading challenging books to little kids. Like everybody, I love picture books, too, yet I ‘m a bigger fan of sharing chapter books with preschoolers. The day my youngest came home from the hospital, I began reading “Through the Looking Glass” to her. By the time, my daughters entered kindergarten they new books like “The Odyssey,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Yearling,” and Jane Goodall’s “In the Shadow of Man” (my daughter who is now an engineer picked that one out herself).

As should be clear to any reader of these pages, I also support Common Core, specifically because those standards are higher than past standards. They are ramping up the rigor for kids and I’m on board. (I even believe in Algebra for most 8th graders though I know nothing about the teaching of math). 

Given all of that, I find myself in an uncomfortable position: I think beginning reading instruction (Grades K-1) is going off the rails, specifically because of attempts to impose rigor on those grades that goes beyond anything that makes sense.

This phony rigor—phony because it appears to be demanding, though it would be unlikely to actually elevate children’s learning in any productive way.

Some examples may help.

One example of this kind of phony rigor is the first-grade teachers who have told me that they are going to teach with complex text. They have looked at the second-grade Lexile demands of Common Core and they want to ensure that the kids will be able to handle those text demands when they get there.

That enthusiasm is admirable, but it would be wrong headed for most kids. Instead of helping them to progress faster, it would make text less transparent (harder to figure out the spelling patterns and sound-symbol relationships). That’s why CCSS didn’t raise text levels for beginners; the standards recognize that would appear to be more demanding, but it would be phony because it would just make us adults look tougher when we were actually slowing down the kids’ learning progress (in the end lower achievement, but we rigor-demanding adults could feel better about ourselves).

Another example is how fast some people are trying to teach phonics. It’s apparently clear to them that if they teach enough phonic elements to 5-year-olds, they’ll be seen as rigorous. But displays of rigor aren’t what we are looking for. “What’s more important, teaching lots of phonic elements in a brief time or ensuring kids become effective decoders?”

Part of the problem with introducing phonic elements that quickly initially is that you reduce their decoding progress. Studies, for example, have shown the foolishness of teaching complex patterns (like long vowel spelling patterns) before kids have effectively digested short vowels. It is not just that they don’t learn the long vowel patterns very well, but those patterns can mislead kids into thinking that reading is about reading the letter names—it is not; it is about matching sounds and letters, quite a different (and more abstract) idea.

Or, what about the crazy number of sight words some programs are striving for? I’m a big sight word and flash card guy (that was certainly part of my teaching approach in Grade 1, in various reading clinics, and with my own kids), but is the point to memorize a long list of words or to become readers as early as possible?

I remember vividly teaching my oldest daughter to read. I was teaching a group of pre-service teacher candidates at the same time and I’d tell them about her progress. At that point, my four-year-old daughter knew her consonant sounds and had managed to memorize about 25 sight words… but she still couldn’t read (by reading I mean being able to make sense of a written message from nothing but the words on the page).

My students asked a really good question: How many words does it take to make someone a reader?

The answer, of course, is that knowing lots of words will eventually be helpful, but there is no particular number of words that have to be known before a child crosses the line to being a reader. The smartest people in the field, after carefully and thoroughly reviewing the research literature on this issue decided that kindergartners should probably master a small number of sight words—certainly much less than the dozens being espoused by some programs. 
One gets the sense they want to pile up big numbers only to impress their rigor-seeking customers, but these schemes aren’t based on research, the demands of the new standards, or even the experience of those who have most successfully taught young children to read. 

The reason for the high numbers: It's a kind of selfie. Teachers and administrators stung by the charges that they have been too soft and sloppy in the past want to look rigorous. They sincerely hope to do good, but have nary a clue about what good might be. If someone tells you 5-year-olds need to master 92 sight words to become readers, grab your wallet and run. 

Pointless learning goals won’t help kids more if they appear to be rigorous and demanding. They're still pointless. Remember, the real goal is to teach kids to be wise readers--not to see how fast we can introduce particular lists of skills. Such lists, no matter how quickly, introduced don't make kids readers. 




Friday, February 26, 2010

Sight Words for Kindergarten? Yes, But Not Too Many

Here is a letter I received this week:
Dr. Shanahan,
I’m writing you out of sheer frustration in doing my own research on the topic of Kindergarten Sight words – perhaps it’s because the answer I’m looking for just isn’t there??

I’m on the hunt for some solid research and have not been successful in finding it (I’m usually pretty good in doing so!) My K teachers are in disagreement about the teaching of sight vocabulary – and it’s a driving force for some angst right now in their team. I just printed the executive summary of the report of the natl early literacy panel…yet as I skim through I see nothing regarding sight word acquisition.

At this point, we have some that believe it’s NOT developmentally appropriate to teach sight words…..others are very skills=based and driven to do so, especially with the 1st grade goal of mastery of 100 high frequency words by Oct 1 of first grade. There are currently 60 high frequency words being measured/hopefully mastered by the end of K in our data books for that level.

Could you provide some insight about this? Specific research for me to back it - - How many? Which ones?

Instructional Coach


Dear Coach:

Thanks for your letter. Research and experience tell me that sight word instruction is helpful to young children who are learning to read. However, the research is not terribly specific as to how many words should be taught or when so anything I say on that will have to come entirely from experience and the wisdom of others.

I have no qualms in saying that it IS developmentally appropriate to teach sight words to kindergarteners (or even preschoolers). If it weren't developmentally appropriate, then young children simply would not learn the words (but they do). I’ve watched hundreds of Kindergarten teachers teaching words and have reviewed lots of research on the teaching of print to young children, and see no evidence that this cannot be done profitably and well.

Based on its seminal research review (Prevention of Reading Difficulties) the National Research Council issued an implementation guide for schools, a marvelous little book, Starting Our Right: A Guide to Promoting Children’s Reading Success that I used when I was director of reading in Chicago. It suggests that by the end of kindergarten, children should recognize some words by sight including a few very common ones (the, I, my, you, is, are). Unfortunately, it isn't specific as to how many, but this authoritative guide makes it absolutely clear that sight word teaching is appropriate in kindergarten.

However, 60 words sounds high to me (as does the idea that everyone will know the most frequent 100 words by Oct 1 of grade 1). That sounds ambitious (which is good), but I suspect that there will be a lot of failure with it. I’ve always told my teachers that by the end of grade 1 the students should know all of the 100 most frequent words — and a 300-500 other easy-to-decode words as well. Typically, the first 100 high frequency aren’t mastered by most kids until Thanksgiving or so (and that is with considerable effort).

I would suggest a much more modest goal for the end of kindergarten (perhaps 20 words or so, with at least 10 of those being high frequency words). I think your teachers are frustrated not because they are teaching the wrong stuff, but because the standard is set too high to be practical.

They also may be struggling with this teaching if they aren’t well-versed in how to do that. Too often sight word teaching becomes a drill-sequence that is unnecessarily tedious. Try things like having the children dictate language experience stories, and do lots of reading and rereading (including choral reading) with these. Then start pulling words out of these stories and help the children to examine these outside of the context of the story. That kind of teaching goes much faster and will be less stressful for everybody.