Misrepresenting the Dolch List

Common sight wordsThe Dolch List of Sight Words is a list of 220 high-frequency English words compiled by E. W. Dolch in 1936. The list contains service words like articles and prepositions, but no nouns. Dolch also drew up a second list of 95 nouns common in children’s books of his time.

According to the article at Wikipedia,

“Many of the 220 Dolch words can’t be sounded out using common sound to phonics letter patterns and have to be learned by sight.”

This remark is extremely misleading.

The Dolch List is called a “sight word” list because it contains high-frequency words that must eventually be recognized at sight by fluent readers. It does not mean that children should be taught the words without reference to their phonetic elements. These are such common words that even without flash card drill, they will become sight words in the course of seeing them again and again.

The truth is that all but 20 of the words on the 220-word Dolch list can be sounded out using the conventional sound/symbol relationships of English spelling. Teaching all of the words without adequate phonemic instruction serves to make children distrust the English spelling system from the outset.

Children should learn to write and read the words on the Dolch list according to the sound symbols in them before committing them to memory.

Phonics instruction teaches habits of mind
Learning to read is the first formal academic task a child comes to. For that reason beginning reading instruction is about more than learning to recognize written words. It is about developing habits of study. The child who learns to read by learning the sound symbols of English develops habits of analysis.

It is possible to teach the beginning reader all of the words on the Dolch list with flash cards and little or no phonetic information. Such an approach, however, undermines the child’s intellectual development.

For a deaf child, learning to read by memorizing the shape of every new word is better than not being able to read at all. For the hearing child, however, learning by word shape and letter clues is crippling. Children taught in this way develop habits of guessing. Learning the Dolch list with phonics lays a foundation for independent reading.

Before you get out your Dolch flash cards, teach your child the phonetic information needed to sound out the words that can be sounded out.

Another thing: flash card drill is a poor second to reading actual books in which the high frequency words appear. Words learned in context are internalized more effectively than words learned in isolation.

The 220-word Dolch List, alphabetized

Tier One of the Dolch List: the first 73 words to teach

2 Responses

  1. Denis,
    Whether the child is an ESL learner or a native speaker, simple is best. I’d go with the most common meaning when a word is introduced. Alternate meanings can be explained as they come up in conversation or reading.

    Some alternate uses will have to be explained sooner than others. For example, live and read.

  2. Some of the words on the list have more than one meaning, some meanings are easy to teach together, but some are a bit more complex to explain to elementary school ESL learners.

    For example: “About” or “Draw”.

    Should they be taught the first time with the least list of meanings to avoid confusion? Or all meanings of the word need to be covered?

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