Wacky Words--that might be the next alias
Big Lie Has New Name: High-Frequency Words
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Your average criminal has a few aliases. It’s de rigueur in the underworld.
But only real swashbucklers pass the half-dozen mark. Think about the confusion keeping your identities straight. Down South you’re Jackson Jones, but in New York you answer to Maxie Smith, however, guys in Atlantic City call you Lefty,” as in, “Yo, Lefty, still doing hits?”
Which has to remind us of Whole Word, one of the greatest swashbucklers since Charles Ponzi’s business plan. This wise guy—I mean Whole Word—came into the world as Look-say, with a few early aliases such as Word Method and Memory Method. Only when Look-say developed an unsavory reputation (something to do with those millions of kids who couldn’t read) did it become Whole Word, which later mutated into Whole Language. Along the way, it was also known as Dolch Words, Fry Words, Instant Words, and Sight Words. As these names became dreck on the market, the experts started jabbering circa 2000 about the wonders of Balanced Literacy.
All these aliases serve the same purpose that aliases always serve. You are not supposed to remember that you know this con artist. The alias says: “I’m not Look-say, that SOB. I’m Whole Word. I’m new in town. I’m a good guy.”
Note that Balanced Literacy still tells parents that children should memorize their Dolch Words and sight-words. You can find literally hundreds of sites promoting this approach. Not that it works. In the US, two-thirds of elementary school children are below proficient in reading. The official dogma keeps falling into disrepute. What to do? Here’s the answer that our ed commissars keep resorting to: why don’t we shift to a new alias? Maybe nobody will notice.
Suddenly, around 2010, all of the many alternatives faded to gray, as dozens of websites began touting “high frequency words.” These are all the short words that used to be called Dolch Words, because it was Edward Dolch who said they occurred a great deal. The pitch was that if you memorized a few hundreds common words, you would know some huge percentage of English. As if you can read a daily newspaper without knowing virtually all the words. Total nonsense. But now we are in 2012 and high-frequency words are the toast of the Internet.
The new Party Line goes like this: “High-frequency words are the 100 or so most commonly used words in printed language. Though the English language contains millions of words, over 50 percent of all text is composed of these 100 words. These words often present a special difficulty to early readers. Many are phonetically irregular (there, not ‘theer;’ could, not ‘cold’), and they tend to be abstract and have no visual correspondence, or even easily understood definitions. Yet these words are essential to reading. If students are to read quickly and fluently, they must have these high-frequency words memorized to sight; otherwise, decoding will take up much time and effort, frustrating the reader and blocking easy comprehension. Recognizing high-frequency words by sight primarily involves memorization, and memorization comes most easily through repetition. Students need to read and write high-frequency words as often as possible.”
All the nonsense is right there. I love the obtuseness of “words not having visual correspondents or easily understood definitions.” Remember, these are all little words that the child has been using in conversations since the age of three, probably hundreds of times each, words like: them, now, yellow, one, clean, walk, is, hit, you, not, his, but.
These words—according to the sales pitch—are just so totally wacky that no child in history has been able to master them except as sight-designs. Wacky Words—that might be the next alias.
The Education Establishment (in US) has gone all in on Whole Word, whatever the alias. They have doubled down; and they’ve doubled down again, and again. They’ve been pushing this gimmick since 1931. They have created 50 million functional illiterates and 1 million dyslexics. And they won’t let go. They won’t apologize. They won’t say, ooops, we made a mistake. No, they keep finding new ways to repackage and reposition what is basically a hoax.
This is one of the great ironies of American history. That all these progressives (read: Socialists) turn out to be clever capitalists. They really do know marketing. If people won’t buy prunes, call them dried plums. Eureka
Of course, prunes are good for you, whatever you call them. But Whole Words are bad for you, no matter what new names you come up with. English, a phonetic language, must be learned phonetically. Memorizing phonetic words as a graphic symbols is hard, tedious work. At the end of it, you probably can’t read a newspaper headline.
Phonics, phonetics, phonetical—these are all just fancy Greek-root words meaning sounds. Sounds, that’s the key concept; and that’s what Whole Word tries to hide.
Here, just for grim fun, are the kinds of wisdom you can find on websites claiming to teach literacy:
“Create a word wall of high-frequency words…Introduce words in small groups of six to eight words or fewer per week.”
“High-frequency words are the words that appear most often in printed materials. According to Robert Hillerich, ‘Just three words—I, and, the—account for ten percent of all words in printed English.’”
“High-frequency words are hard for my students to remember because they tend to be abstract,” says a first grade teacher. “They can’t use a picture clue to figure out the word with. And phonics clues don’t always work either….Recognizing these words gives students a basic context for figuring out other words. Once they recognize the, they can predict with amazing accuracy what the next word will be.”
One really shriveled-down program asks first-graders to memorize 35 words by the end of the school year. Only 35.
Please focus on this. All the phonics programs say that children will learn to read in that same time. So there’s your choice. Read almost anything, even if haltingly. Versus reading three dozen words after nine months of struggle.
Here is that program’s big excitement for week 12: came, home, could, why, again. Here’s what they’ll be doing in week 31: four, carry, world, those, well.
By the end of second grade, after two years of very hard work, students are supposed to know 100 words. Needless to say they can’t read anything from the real world—not a cereal box, not an ad, not a street sign, nor any traditional story. All of education is completely stopped for several years, indeed many, many years. And in sixth grade, here’s what these kids are memorizing; cross, sharp, fight, fill, deal, busy, beyond, send, love, cool, kitchen.
Do the math. Even if children learn 100 words a year, in the ninth grade, that is, high school, they will still know fewer than 1,000 words. They are practically illiterate. And that’s what all the testing shows. Recent NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores showed that only one-third of American eighth-graders are proficient or above.
Please, if you’re a parent, just keep going over these numbers until finally it hits you in the face: this is insane.
The officials and the school will tell you that high-frequency words are the path to literacy. No, they are more likely the end of literacy.
High-frequency words is just another alias (perhaps the 10th or 12th) for a bad character—a child abuser, really—that has been lurking around American (and Canadian) schools for 80 years.
There are several obvious conclusions. One, do not trust the Education Establishment when they talk about reading. Two, teach children to read early, when they are three or four. In this way they will be inoculated against whatever nonsense may be going on in your local public schools.
For more about early literacy, see “54: Preemptive Reading—Teach Your Child Early” on Improve-Education.org.