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The Danger of Teaching “Sight Words”

I read a question from a parent yesterday (on “Classroom Talk”), asking how to help her child learn the long list of sight words that the first grade teacher gave her child. This is my response:

“Children in first grade should not be given lists of sight words to memorize. They should be learning to decode (sound out) and encode (write) regularly spelled words, NOT MEMORIZE THE VISUAL APPEARANCE OF WORDS.

First graders should be learning to identify the sounds in words they say and link letters to those sounds. This is called phoneme awareness and phonics, and these are the critical skills for becoming a good reader. Your first grader should read words like GO and SEE by knowing the sounds that those letters stand for, and sounding out the words. As he does this often, his brain will start to automatically recognize the words. This will enable him to sound out and read or write any regularly spelled word independently. He will not have to visually memorize lists of words, except for those few that are “outlaw words” (don’t follow the rules), and he should only tackle these after he’s mastered phoneme awareness and phonics.

If he is not learning phoneme awareness and phonics at school, teach him at home. Try asking him to read some nonsense words like MUN or SAF. If he can’t do this, ask his teacher whether she is teaching him to sound out words. If you want him to be a good reader in second grade, teach him these skills NOW yourself. There’s lots of good information on the web about how to become aware of the sounds in words and link those sounds to letters.”

Phoneme Awareness vs Phonics?

The National Institute for Literacy has some good tips for teaching phoneme awareness (being able to identify the separate sounds in words) a critical skill for learning to read.

National Institute for Literacy

However, they suggest that 20 hours of class time should suffice for teaching phonemic awareness. Since close to 70% of American 4th and 8th graders cannot read proficiently, and since phoneme awareness and phonics are the two most frequently found deficits in children who struggle to read, perhaps we need to re-evaluate whether students are really learning this skill in the 20 hours of instruction they receive. What do you think? Are phoneme awareness and phonics separate skills? Or should they be linked so that children understand why they are asked to become aware of the sounds in words?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Travel as Education

Travel can be one of the most educational experiences imaginable.  Even short trips that require hearing a new language, or seeing a new culture, or living in a new way (like camping) can make big changes in a child’s life.

Jeannine sailingIn 1970, my husband and I took our two children, Matthew (13) and Melissa (11) on a voyage that lasted 18 months.  We sailed a 31-foot sloop from New Orleans to West Africa and down the coast as far as Ghana.  We did “school” as we went, and the children learned sailing, piloting, marine biology, and we stayed amidst other cultures for periods of time—the Azores (Portuguese), the Canaries (Spanish), Senegal (French) etc.

We needed the kids to take watches and help with activities like cooking and boat maintenance, so they learned lots of everyday skills about how to take care of themselves in the world.  As part of “school” we asked them to keep a log (diary) of their experiences.  I would make suggestions from time to time about their writing and help with spelling, grammar, etc.  We eventually published a book called “Voyage of Aquarius” (including the most interesting logs of all four of us) about the experience of crossing the ocean in a small boat.  But we never got around to publishing the story of our adventures going down the coast of Africa and 300 miles into the interior up the Gambia River.

Matthew wrote some fascinating entries that I have just compiled into a book for middle school students called ”Our Big Blue Schoolhouse”.  It includes some wonderful photos taken by Matt, a professional photojournalist. If you are interested in this book, you can email me at herron at talkingfingers dot com.

What To Do About Your Child’s Media Time?

child watching tvIn my last post I wrote about the fact that this generation is spending 7.5 hours/day or 53 hours/week on TV, video games, music, and Internet socializing. The number of hours has increased dramatically since 2004 (then it was 4 hours/day) largely because of mobile devices that can play movies or games or provide the Internet anywhere.

Is this something that parents should be concerned about?  I think so. And it is the responsibility of parents because most of this happens after school. But what can be done? Here are three ideas.  Maybe you have more, and can share them with our readers…

  1. Model for your children.
  2. Have conversations at dinner or before bed where you really pay attention to what they think about some issue.  Tell them what you’ve been thinking, and that you’re going to write it down so you won’t forget it. If they see you writing, if they see you putting thought into some letter to an editor or a politician, or a poem or song, or your diary, and you talk about why it’s important to you, they will follow your lead.  Let them see you pursuing new knowledge yourself. It’s good for the aging brain as well as the developing brain!


Is Your Child Engrossed in Media 53 hours/week?

children engrossed by media

A new study put out by Kaiser Family Services tells us that children are using media like TV, music, and internet social media more than 7.5 hours a day—that comes to an average of 53 hours a week of mostly passive experience! Yes, they text, but what kind of thought goes into texting or tweeting?  Are their brains really processing and analyzing and digesting new information?  Unfortunately, no.


Recommended Reading


While Jeannine takes a break from blogging this holiday week, here are some good blog posts to check out:

  • has some great articles, like these:
  • The ASCD Community Blog assesses the “Language of Thinking” in this article, examining the words that teachers use in the classroom when teaching children.

Wishing all of our readers a happy holiday season!

A Simple Gift That Lasts for a Lifetime: Teach Your Kids to Read

At this time of gift-giving, when money is tight, why not give your child a gift that won’t cost you anything but time and love, and will last a lifetime.  Here is a recipe for getting started:

There are 18 FREE decodable booklets in pdf form on our website.

Print out the first booklet “IS IT A CAT?”  Look at the first book together, and read it to your child.  But don’t try to have your child memorize the appearance of words or “read” the book until you have played together making words.

The secret of learning to read is understanding how to make words first! If your child can arrange letter tiles to create the words in the first booklet, he or she is well on the way to understanding how letters are used to represent the sounds in words—and that is the key to reading! (more…)

Are you teaching phonics backwards?

“One of the most fundamental flaws found in almost all phonics programs, including traditional ones, is that they teach the code backwards.  That is, they go from letter to sound instead of from sound to letter.”

Louisa Moats, 1998

What do you think about this quote from Louisa Moats?


How do you teach phonics? Method A or B?  Why?

A. Print-to-Speech. Letters-to-sounds. Decoding.

Teach the alphabet song.

Associate 26 visual letters with their names.

Then teach letter sounds.

Decode a familiar word together, like CAT by identifying each letter, saying the sound that is associated with that letter, and blending the sounds together.  If the blended sounds resemble the word, the word is decoded as CAT.

Use flash cards to practice letter names, and words.

B. Speech-to-Print.  Sounds-to-letters. Encoding.

Start with a familiar spoken word, like CAT

Segment together the three sounds in the word.

From a few letter tiles, find the letters that stand for those sounds. Arrange the tiles to represent (encode) the sequence of sounds in CAT. Mix up the letters until the child arranges them correctly. Read the word. Discuss other words in the same family, like FAT or HAT.  By working with other Consonant-Vowel-Consonant words, eventually the child learns the letters that represent the 40 sounds of English.  Encode words first, then decode (read) what has been written.

How do YOU teach early reading?   Let’s have a discussion!

Writing with a pencil is difficult…

pencilsWriting with a pencil is difficult……

You have to remember what the letters look like….

You have to draw the letters….

You  have to erase…

You have to copy over…


Writing with a computer can make it easier…

You don’t have to draw the letters….just tap the right key.

You don’t have to erase…just delete and type over.

You don’t have to copy over…

You can read what you’ve written…

The text always goes from left to right…

Why not start with writing?

Writing is a system humans have invented to make speech visible.

Our English alphabet is a way of drawing sounds.


Words must be written before they can be read.

Why not start with writing?

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