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At what age should I begin teaching my child sight words? When should I start trying to teach my child to read? Should parents do this or should we wait for school to start?
This is an excellent question—or rather an excellent set of questions. I will address each one—but they are best answered in reverse order. So let’s start with the question as to whether parents should initiate the teaching of reading or wait for the schools to do it. The answer here rests with a statistic that is both incredible and dismaying. For years, government figures reveal that across the nation, 40 percent of children have difficulties in learning to read. Although I have been in the field for decades and have repeatedly seen figures of this magnitude, they still shock me. It is a tragedy for the nation, for the families and for the children.
Although these children are bright and alert, the system marks them as failures. But they are not the source of the failure. It is the system that is failing the children. And the system is failing because the current methods of reading instruction fall far short of what is needed for success. As but one example, let’s take the current teaching of phonics of or “sounding out” which is the core of all instruction. This means that there is a troublesome group of words that cannot be sounded (often termed the “little words”–words such as who, have, does, there). These words are termed “exceptions” and they receive minimal instructional time. However, these happen to be the words that make up over 50% of the words on any page of print. In other words, although the children are told that these words are “exceptions,” they are actually the majority of words that a child sees. The end result is that the instructional process leaves the child unable to cope with most of the words on a page.
Unfortunately, once failure takes hold, it is extraordinarily demoralizing. In this situation, parents should do everything they can to prevent failure. Early successful learning gives children an enormous headstart for a bright future throughout the school years. So in brief, the answer is, “Yes, it is highly desirable for parents to teach children to read.”
That leads to the second question: the age at which instruction should start. Generally it should not be before children are about 4 ½ to 5 years of age. With all good intentions, and often with encouragement from the media, parents often begin much earlier, by offering children activities such as using letter tiles and applying letter names when they are as young as two years. This is not a desirable path to take. For a start, reading is significantly bolstered when it is linked to writing. Writing, however, is often unappealing to very young children as well as being difficult for them to carry out. So a major path for learning is not available. Further, for solid learning to take place, a child needs to be able to focus in a sustained manner for 15 – 20 minute periods on a regular basis. This too is often beyond the capacities of a child under 4 years. For these reasons, it is best to hold off on reading instruction until the child is somewhat more mature.
Finally, there is the question of sight words –which touches on the larger question of “what should the initial instruction consist of?” This is a complex issue because the term“sight words” has multiple meanings. One meaning derives from the instructional process. Specifically, as noted above, there is a set of words (the “little words”) that cannot be sounded out. These words are termed “sight words,” meaning that they fall outside the purview of the “sounding out” process. Because traditional education has devised no other method for teaching these words, they receive little instructional time. In other words, in reading instruction “sight words” is a term that represents all the words for which there is no established method of instruction.
If we leave the instructional process and go to reading itself, we come to a very different meaning to the term. While often not acknowledged, for effective readers, all reading is based on sight words. That is what you are doing now. There was probably not a single word on this page which caused you to pause and resort to the strategy of “sounding out.” Indeed, if you had to sound out even 10% of the words on this page, the process would be so onerous that you would simple abandon the process. Sight words in this context is the process of reading that all effective readers use and it is the process that makes reading smooth and feasible.
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