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Some comments on the whole word method

The Dolch Sight Words List

The Dolch Sight Words List is a popular list made up of very frequently occurring words. Many teachers use this list as a resource for teaching words. It is obvious that everyone will encounter these words a lot, but the question is: “How should I teach them? As whole words or using phonics?”

This page allows you to see the list from the perspective of someone who is illiterate. (Works best with Firefox browser version 3.5+ so far. Unfortunately, if you don't use a recent version of Firefox or if you use any other browser you won't get the full effect on this page. All other browsers, however, can still see the word list in English.) If you do have the latest version, just click on the two buttons at the top of the chart to see what it's like not knowing how to read. Each letter of every word in the list gets consistently replaced with a symbol from the Inuktituk script. Now think about how you would like to go about learning these words in the new script. Would you like to memorize them as unique arbitrary sequences of shapes? Using rote memorization? Or would you like to figure out which symbols represent which English letters and learn it that way? I suspect that most people would prefer the last approach if given the choice. The last option is definitely the easiest. Compare the difference between the two methods. Using the whole word method you would need to memorize 218 sequences of unique arbitrary shapes. Mapping the shapes to latin letters would be a task of merely memorizing 26 items. If you wanted to learn to read using only the whole word approach you would end up having to memorize more than 50,000 words by their shapes by the time you graduate from high school. An impossible task! The 218 words in the Dolch Sight Word List contain about 110 different spelling patterns. If you teach the most common 110 spelling patterns so that students can decode words with them, they will be able to read tens of thousands of words not merely 218.

Now, the Dolch sight wordlist can be a useful tool. You can use it to assess the reading ability of a student, but don't teach them to read by getting them to memorize these words as whole shapes!

More fun for Firefox users

Like the feeling of being illiterate? Want to experience some more of what it's like learning to read using the whole word method? Well, some educators have proposed that you use the following methods to help you understand stories if you've learned words as wholes.

  • Interact critically with the text
  • Use context to figure out what the words mean
  • Look at the first letter of the word and guess the rest
  • Ok, you do know the Dolch sight words by sight, don't you? Knowing the common words should make it easy to figure out the rest.
  • Here's a page where you can try it out for yourself. Remember to use these common whole word principles for reading this well known children's story.