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.