Sight Words, Orthographic Mapping, and Self-Teaching
Updated: Mar 12
This 3rd blog completes a trilogy of blogs written expressly for reading teachers and interested parents. The other two blogs can be found here and here. My goal in writing the trilogy is to advocate unabashedly for a fundamental change in early reading instruction: a change from Balanced Literacy – with its “invented” spellings, rote-memorized sight words, “discovery” learning, and guessing strategies – to Synthetic Phonics.
The main topic of this blog is sight words. It’s a complex topic - one that will require a close look at phonemic awareness and at the relatively unknown processes that researchers call “orthographic mapping” and the “self-teaching hypothesis.”
So, what is a sight word? How is it created? How is it related to phonemic awareness, orthographic mapping, and self-teaching? What method of teaching maximizes the number of sight words that can be created, yet minimizes the conscious effort needed to create them?
To explore these topics, some specialized vocabulary is essential. Let’s get that bit of housekeeping out of the way first:
A Brief Glossary
Phonological lexicon: A storage system in the brain consisting of individual word pronunciations.
Semantic lexicon: A storage system in the brain consisting of individual word meanings.
Orthographic lexicon: A storage system in the brain consisting of individual word spellings.
[Note: We’re born with the ability to start acquiring the first two of these lexicons, without any explicit instruction, as a ready-to-go gift of evolution. The orthographic lexicon, however, is created and linked to the other two, if and only if we engage in the process of learning to read.]
Phoneme: the most elemental unit of sound in a given language (usually designated by slash marks). For example, /a/ (lowercase) is the first sound you can hear in the word APPLE (before you close your mouth to articulate the P sound). The sound /A/ (uppercase) is the first sound you can hear in APRIL (long A). The words CAT, SHED, CHEAP, and TAUGHT (for example) have three phonemes each, despite the fact that they have 3, 4, 5, and 6 letters respectively:
CAT = /k/ + /a/ + /t/
SHED = /sh/ + /e/ + /d/ (lowercase /e/ = short E)
CHEAP = /ch/ + /E/ + /p/ (uppercase /E/ = long E)
TAUGHT = /t/ + /aw/ + /t/
Grapheme: a letter (or a group of letters) that symbolize a single phoneme. Nearly all graphemes consist of one or two letters (as shown in the above examples). Be careful here: SH is the grapheme that symbolizes the phoneme /sh/ in the word SHED. CH and EA are graphemes that symbolize the phonemes /ch/ and /E/, respectively, in CHEAP. Other common 2-letter graphemes are TH and OA (THIN and ROAD). IGH is an example of a 3-letter grapheme. It symbolizes the long I sound in a word like FIGHT. FIGHT and FIT each have three phonemes:
/f/ + /I/ + /t/ and /f/ + /i/ + /t/
There are some common 4-letter graphemes as well such as AUGH, OUGH, and EIGH. The first two of these symbolize the phoneme /aw/ in words like TAUGHT and BOUGHT (3 phonemes each). EIGH symbolizes the long A sound in a word like EIGHT: /A/ + /t/.
[Note: For any given word, the number of phonemes and graphemes are equal. For a more complete list of the phonemes and graphemes in English, see Table 1 and Appendices P & Q in any of my free books. For a full discussion of the Alphabetic Code, see my new blog here.]
Blending: To see a written word, to assign a phoneme to each of its graphemes, and to smoothly combine those phonemes (left to right) to form a pronunciation – thereby decoding or sounding out the word. If the word is then recognized by the child, because it’s in his or her spoken (or listening) vocabulary, this process is also called reading.
Segmenting: To hear a spoken word, to separate it into all its constituent phonemes, and to assign a grapheme to each of those phonemes – thereby encoding it. This process is also called spelling.
[Note: Blending and segmenting involve letters. They are not oral-only exercises.]
Phonemic Awareness: To become conscious of phonemes and to manipulate those phonemes, with letters, for the express purpose of learning to read and spell.
Synthetic Phonics: A bottom-up method for teaching both reading and spelling. Synthetic Phonics starts with phonemes and the graphemes that represent them. Children are quickly shown how to blend (sound out) new words. There is, conveniently, an entire blog on this topic right on this web site (see here).
The Brain’s Language Center
Children are born with a system already in place for acquiring spoken language. It’s a gift resulting from a million years of evolution. As a result, children don’t need formal instruction on how to speak or how to comprehend speech. Simply place them in a speaking environment, and their language will begin to develop spontaneously.
Input to this system is via the ears and consists of coarticulated phonemes, that is, phonemes which seamlessly blend together in any given word. With each new word a toddler learns, the sound of the word, with its individual phonemes sequenced automatically, is stored in the brain’s phonological lexicon, while the meaning of the word is stored in the semantic lexicon.
Toddlers can easily hear and understand the difference between PET and GET (words differing only in the first phoneme), PET and PAT (differing only in the second), and PET and PEN (differing only in the last phoneme). When a toddler wishes to speak, her brain’s language center automatically and unconsciously gathers, orders, and coarticulates the necessary phonemes:
KITTY CAT = /k/ + /i/ + /t/ + /E/ + /k/ + /a/ + /t/
Throughout an individual's life, spoken words are constantly being added to his or her phonological and semantic lexicons.
What is a Sight Word?
The brain’s Language Center, however, has no built-in circuitry for reading and spelling (cf. Sally Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, Ch 5). The ingenious code that underlies those skills is a human invention which developed only a few thousand years ago. That’s a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms – and too recent for evolution to have developed specialized brain circuits for handling symbolic speech whose characters (letters) enter the brain via the eyes instead of the ears.
As a child starts learning to read and spell, a third lexicon is created in the brain and linked to the two already there. This orthographic lexicon will slowly (at first) accumulate the exact letter sequence of each word the reader has learned to recognize at a glance, that is, without sounding it out (blending it). So, for example, if CAT becomes a sight word, its spelling (C, A, T) gets linked to the pronunciation (/k/ + /a/ + /t/) and meaning (furry animal that purrs) that have already been stored in her brain since she was two. She’ll never again have to sound out CAT to read it, or segment CAT to spell it.
A sight word, then, is one that a reader instantly and automatically identifies without conscious effort. She doesn’t analyze it, decode it, or sound it out. Rather, as soon as she sees the word, its sound and meaning are immediately available to her. If instead, she first hears the word, its spelling and meaning are immediately available. And of course, if meaning comes first, spelling and sound instantly follow. For mature readers, most words are sight words.
[Note: Any word encountered by a reader, high-frequency or low, phonetically regular or irregular, can and should become a sight word.]
Creating Sight Words: The Hard Way
Sight words are clearly useful, but how are they created? There's a hard way and an easy way – and both are necessary for skilled reading and spelling to develop. The hard way is to rote-memorize the spelling of the word visually, without regard to the sound value of its letters. For a longer word, this is akin to memorizing passwords or phone numbers.
Here are some examples of words (or other symbols) where rote-memorization of the accompanying sound is a necessity: OF, ONE, CHOIR, YACHT, COLONEL, 7, @, $, and ♀. The five words in this list are so irregular that sounding them out is not feasible. (To be regular they would have to be spelled UV, WUN, KWIRE, YOT, and KERNAL.) The four non-alphabetic symbols have no possibility of being decoded, yet, when we see them, we instantly “hear” the sounds SEVEN, AT, DOLLAR, and FEMALE.
All nine of these symbolic representations of sound are sight words for most mature readers (as are most of the words in this blog). So why not have new readers learn all words this way, visually, without regard to sound? This would effectively make our alphabetic system into a logographic one - similar, one might assume, to Chinese script. There are three huge problems with trying to do this:
1) No purely logographic writing system has ever existed. Chinese characters (hanzi) are usually accompanied by a phonetic component to help with pronunciation and/or a semantic component (a radical) to help with meaning. Similarly, Japanese characters (kanji) are usually accompanied by pronunciation helpers (called katakana and hiragana) that symbolize syllables like "ma" and "ka." Notably, for both Chinese and Japanese, memorization of around 3000 characters is all that’s needed for basic literacy. (See here.)
The trouble is, it takes 12 years of schooling to achieve this monumental feat of memorization - even with the above phonetic helpers. That’s about 250 characters per year – and it requires a level of intensity, drilling, and homework that would be unacceptable in most Western schools.
Suppose, for a moment, that our children could visually memorize 3000 sight words by the end of high school. Where would that leave them? They would be functionally illiterate. That’s because English has over a million words, and a skilled, educated reader of English has a personal orthographic lexicon of 60,000 or more sight words. Do the math: 3000/60000 = 0.05. Conclusion: relying on visual rote-memorization for sight word acquisition would, under the best possible circumstances, equip our children with only 5% of the sight words needed to become skilled readers. The reality? Most of our children do not learn even 100 sight words per year in this manner.
2) Self-teaching, in the sense of adding new sight words independently to one’s orthographic lexicon, would be an impossibility. If the connection between spelling on the one hand, and sound/meaning on the other, is visually rote-memorized, then, when a child comes across an unknown word, he must either guess the word’s pronunciation (and meaning) or ask someone else what the word says.
That this is a critical issue can again be understood with a little math. If a skilled reader of English has about 60,000 sight words in her personal mental dictionary after 12 years of schooling, she must have been memorizing words at the rate of 60,000/12 or 5000 new words each year. That’s 28 new words, on average, per school day! No teacher is accomplishing that with her students and no student is consciously memorizing sight words at such a phenomenal rate. (More on this below.)
3) To begin reading instruction with rote-memorization of sight words is demoralizing for many children. It gives them the false but unmistakable message that the skill of learning to read is not based on logic, but rather on blind memorization and word-guessing. After a year of this type of “schooling,” many of them get frustrated and give up. Though these children are actually instructional casualties, they often end up classified as “learning disabled.”
Creating Sight Words: The Easy Way
Calling this second way of creating sight words “easy” is a bit of a misnomer – at least at the beginning. At the beginning, this manner of creating sight words is difficult too, as it has some requisite skills that themselves take time and effort to master. Researchers call this second mode of sight word learning orthographic mapping – OM for short. Let’s see what it involves.
[Note: The two most prominent researchers in this space are Linnea Ehri and David Share. If you wish to learn more about orthographic mapping than is covered in this blog, these are the two people to read. (For Ehri, see here and here. For Share, see here and here.) If you completed your teacher training in the past two decades and you’ve never heard of these two authors, your school of education did you a significant disservice.]
Orthographic mapping is simply a process whereby a word’s exact spelling gets stored in permanent, long-term memory as a sight word. Words are orthographically mapped, one at a time, into an individual’s orthographic lexicon (sight word dictionary) if the reader has the skills needed to make all the connections between the graphemes seen in a word’s written form (e.g. CH, EA, and P) and the phonemes heard in that word’s spoken form (e.g. /ch/, /E/, and /p/).
If the reader has the skills necessary to make these connections explicit, then the word (in this case, CHEAP) will become a sight word, automatically and unconsciously, after only 1-4 exposures. Such a word easily becomes a sight word because our brains crave logic and because “making connections” is how the human brain works. Using Synthetic Phonics, these connections are made explicit – from the start of instruction – in the process of blending.
When these grapheme-phoneme connections (correspondences) are explicitly made for a given word, its visual form (exact spelling) is directly linked into the brain’s Language Center, that is, to the sound and meaning lexicons that the new reader has been using since birth. Essentially, by linking individual phonemes and graphemes in this manner, the reader is learning how to accept specific words input through the eyes rather than through the ears. Here’s how Ehri explains it in one of her many publications:
“Beginners remember how to read sight words by forming complete connections between graphemes seen in the written form of words and phonemes detected in their pronunciations. This is possible because they understand how graphemes symbolize phonemes in the conventional spelling system. In applying this knowledge for forming connections in sight words, spellings become amalgamated or bonded to pronunciations of words already in memory.” Beginners have “the ability to decode words never read before, by blending letters into a pronunciation. This knowledge [blending] enables them to form fully connected sight words in memory. Although they are able to decode words, this blending strategy for reading words is supplanted by sight word reading for words that are practiced sufficiently often.” (p.21)
In short, orthographic mapping will begin to occur automatically and as soon as children are taught two essential skills:
1) Knowledge of grapheme/phoneme correspondences (hereafter, GPCs). For example: The letter A says (symbolizes) the sound /a/, M says “mmm,” and N says “nnn.”
2) The skill of blending. For example: the teacher places M A N on the board and demonstrates, explicitly, how to smoothly blend the sounds represented by these letters into the spoken word MAN.
[Note: A third skill, segmenting, is also useful here. Segmenting reinforces the “complete connections” between graphemes and phonemes necessary for orthographic mapping, but it does so from the opposite direction: spelling rather than reading (encoding rather than decoding). Segmenting also helps students spell unfamiliar words (words not yet sight words).]
So where does phonemic awareness (hereafter, PA) fit in with this? The key phonemic awareness skills needed for reading and spelling are precisely the blending and segmenting (with letters) just discussed. National inquiries and individual researchers are united in this regard. Take a look:
The US National Reading Panel (2000):
“The process of decoding words never read before involves transforming graphemes into phonemes [knowledge of GPCs] and then blending the phonemes to form words with recognizable meanings. The PA skill centrally involved in decoding is blending. Another way to read words is from memory, sometimes called sight word reading. This requires prior experience reading the words and retaining information about them in memory. In order for individual words to be represented in memory, beginning readers are thought to form connections between graphemes and phonemes in the word. These connections bond spellings to their pronunciations in memory.” (2-11) [Note: If these last two sentences sound familiar, it’s because Linnea Ehri was on the Panel.]
“Various types of phoneme manipulations might be taught. However, two types, blending and segmenting, are thought to be directly involved in reading and spelling processes. Blending phonemes helps children to decode unfamiliar words. Segmenting words into phonemes helps children to spell unfamiliar words and also helps to retain spellings in memory.” (2-21)
“Programs that focused on teaching one or two PA skills yielded larger effects on PA learning than programs teaching three or more of these manipulations. Instruction that taught phoneme manipulation with letters helped children acquire PA skills better than instruction without letters.” (2-28)
“It is important to note that acquiring phonemic awareness is a means rather than an end. PA is not acquired for its own sake but rather for its value in helping children understand and use the alphabetic system to read and write. This is why including letters in the process of teaching children to manipulate phonemes is important. PA training with letters helps learners determine how phonemes match up to graphemes within words and thus facilitates transfer to reading and spelling.” (2-33)
“Teaching students to segment and blend benefits reading more than a multiskilled approach. Teaching students to manipulate phonemes with letters yields larger effects than teaching students without letters, not surprisingly because letters help children make the connection between PA and its application to reading. Teaching children to blend the phonemes represented by letters is the equivalent of decoding instruction.” (2-41)
England’s Rose Report (2006):
“Having considered a wide range of evidence, the review has concluded that the case for systematic phonic work is overwhelming and much strengthened by a synthetic approach, the key features of which are to teach beginner readers:
• grapheme/phoneme (letter/sound) correspondences [knowledge of GPCs] in a clearly defined, incremental sequence
• to apply the highly important skill of blending (synthesizing) phonemes in order, all through a word to read it
• to apply the skill of segmenting words into their constituent phonemes to spell
• that blending and segmenting are reversible processes.
The sum of these represent 'high quality phonic work.' “ (paragraph 51)
Linnea Ehri: [Note how these next two researchers refer to one other.]
“To form connections and retain words in memory, readers need some requisite abilities. They must possess phonemic awareness, particularly segmentation and blending. They must know the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences [knowledge of GPCs] of the writing system. Then they need to be able to read unfamiliar words on their own by applying a decoding strategy.” Doing so “activates orthographic mapping to retain the words’ spellings, pronunciations, and meanings in memory."
"David Share referred to this as a self-teaching mechanism. With repeated readings that activate orthographic mapping, written words are retained in memory to support reading and spelling. When readers can read words from memory rather than by decoding, text reading is greatly facilitated. Readers are able to read and comprehend more rapidly and to focus their attention on meanings while word recognition happens automatically.” (p 7)
“Since training studies tend to show that neither letter-sound knowledge alone (GPCs) nor phonemic awareness alone are sufficient for substantial gains in reading ability, we can conclude that phonemic awareness in conjunction with letter-sound knowledge (GPCs) is a causal co-requisite for successful reading acquisition.” (p 192)
“There is an important qualification, however, to this broad conclusion regarding the causal, co-requisite status of phonemic awareness. The pattern of results appears to depend on precisely which phonemic awareness skills (synthesis versus analysis) are taught. When phonemic awareness training includes a blending component (in addition, of course, to knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences), trained groups consistently outperform controls. When phonemic analysis (segmentation) alone is trained (even in conjunction with symbol-sound knowledge), findings are consistently negative. The research clearly points to synthesis (blending) as the critical factor as far as reading is concerned.” (p 193)
“In summary, there is strong evidence for a causal role of phoneme synthesis (blending) as a twin co-requisite (alongside symbol-sound knowledge) for successful reading acquisition. This conclusion is supported by both laboratory and field studies. Additional support comes from research comparing initial programs of reading instruction. Phonics programs which explicitly teach blending produce superior results compared to "analytic" programs which generally do not include a blending component… It seems plausible that blending may be critical for reading but segmenting for spelling.” (p 194)
“There is strong support for Ehri’s view that spellings can only be memorized when linked to phonemes detected in pronunciations. The process of letter-by-letter decoding and blending (amalgamating) into an integrated spoken unit, or in short, bottom-up decoding, may be ideally adapted for orthographic mapping. Spelling, of course, is another such process which obliges the explicit processing of letter order and letter identity.”
Re-cap: So far, I’ve established what a sight word is and I’ve made the case that there are two ways (both necessary) to create a sight word. The hard way is to memorize a visual-only rote-connection between the word as a whole and its coarticulated sound and meaning. This is necessary only for a small number of words whose spellings are crazy when compared to their sounds (ONE, OF, COLONEL). It's also necessary for our ten basic numerals and for special symbols like $, &, @, and #.
The “easy” way to create a sight word is not so easy at first because it requires the reader to master two specific skills: knowledge of GPCs and blending (with letters), These skills, according to Ehri, allow the novice reader to make “full connections” between graphemes in the written form of a word and phonemes in the spoken form. Once these connections can be made by the young reader, sight word creation becomes easy, unconscious, and automatic. The process of making the connections necessary to create sight words in long-term memory is called “orthographic mapping.”
I’ve also cited numerous sources to make the case that the critical phonemic awareness skills are blending and segmenting with letters – the exact skills that lead, inexorably for most students, to orthographic mapping, and to skilled reading and spelling.
Share’s Self-Teaching Hypothesis
David Share’s “Self-Teaching Hypothesis” helps pull all the above together. It’s an attempt to explain how a skilled reader could possibly have 60,000 or more entries in his or her personal sight-word dictionary.
According to Share’s Self-Teaching Hypothesis, “each successful decoding encounter with an unfamiliar word provides an opportunity to acquire the word-specific orthographic (spelling) information that is the foundation of skilled word recognition. A relatively small number of successful exposures [1-4] appear to be sufficient for acquiring spelling representations, both for adult skilled readers and young children. In this way, decoding [blending] acts as a self-teaching mechanism or built-in teacher enabling a child to independently develop both word-specific and general spelling knowledge. Although it may not be crucial in skilled word recognition, decoding may be the principal means by which the learner attains skilled word recognition.” (p 155)
The key here is to realize that if 60,000 sight words are the eventual goal, independent learning on the part of the reader must take place, constantly and automatically, in the course of everyday reading. Neither rote-memorization of a word’s meaning (learning sight words the hard way) nor contextual guessing constitutes a viable means for identifying and remembering so many words. The self-teaching hypothesis proposes that only the ability to decode a printed word into its spoken form offers a reliable means of independently identifying new words.
Share claims there are only two “causal co-requisites” in order for self-teaching to activate in a new reader. Notably, these co-requisites are the same two cited by Ehri for orthographic mapping: knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) and the specific phonemic awareness skill of blending. Share calls these two co-requisites the sine qua non of reading acquisition (the indispensable ingredient without which skilled reading is impossible). (pp 156, 173) “There is strong evidence for a causal role of phoneme synthesis (blending) as a twin co-requisite (alongside grapheme-phoneme knowledge) for successful reading acquisition. This conclusion is supported by both laboratory and field studies. Phonics programs which explicitly teach blending produce superior results compared to ‘analytic’ programs which generally do not include a blending component” (p 194)
According to Share, even if a word is moderately irregular (e.g. HAVE, LOVE, SHOULD), there are usually enough grapheme-phoneme connections (along with contextual information) to allow a reader to resolve the decoding ambiguity enough so that the word can be independently decoded, recognized, and added to the orthographic lexicon. “The hypothesis being proposed here is that most irregular words, when encountered in natural text, have sufficient letter-sound regularity (primarily consonantal) to permit selection of the correct target among a set of candidate pronunciations.” (p 166)
In addition, Share notes: “evidence indicates that phonemic awareness is not a basic cognitive ability, antecedent to reading acquisition, but, like letter knowledge, is an integral part of (alphabetic) reading acquisition.” (p 195) This is verified by the fact that illiterate adults, just like preliterate children, essentially lack awareness of phonemes.
“Findings suggest that phonemic awareness does not develop spontaneously in the normal course of cognitive and linguistic development but only in the specific context of learning to read an alphabetic script…The data from both illiterate and preliterate samples indicate that most children develop an awareness of phonemes as they learn to read. PA training is reading instruction proper... In summary, present evidence indicates that phonemic awareness is best classified not as a basic phonological processing ability, but as a reading skill. Thus a lack of phonemic awareness does not necessarily imply a basic phonological deficiency.” (p 196)
If a child has never been explicitly taught GPCs and blending, there's simply no basis for claiming that the child’s lack of phonemic awareness is due to a “phonological deficit.” This warrants repeating: no child should be thought to have a deficit in his sound-processing abilities without first providing him with competent instruction in GPCs and blending.
Implications for Reading Instruction
It seems to me that ideal reading instruction should:
raise the child’s reading comprehension to the level of his or her spoken language comprehension as quickly as possible
convince the child, right off the bat, that reading is a rational skill rather than an arbitrary (magical) one
teach correct spellings, from the outset, so that “invented” spellings and letter-name spellings will not need to be un-learned at a later time
use time wisely because skilled reading is a prerequisite for all other learning
present decoding (sounding out) as the one-and-only-strategy for word identification because word-guessing (based on context, pictures, or a word’s first letter) will never lead to skilled reading
begin instruction with teaching the specific skills (GPCs and blending) needed to activate orthographic mapping and automatic sight word creation
focus on getting a child to the point of Share’s “Self-Teaching” as soon as possible because there are 60,000 sight words the child needs to add to his orthographic lexicon
address the National Reading Panel's "Big Five" (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension) in a coherent and logical manner
Synthetic Phonics accomplishes all the above, while Balanced Literacy (BL) accomplishes none. BL is a top-down approach to reading instruction that begins with sight words (needlessly learned the hard way), invented spellings, and various guessing strategies. “Reading for meaning” (comprehension) is stressed from the outset. “Decontextualized” sounds or words are discouraged. As the child’s collection of rote-memorized sight words grows, the process of “discovering” the code – by analyzing the sight words (Analytic Phonics) or by analogizing from them (Analogy Phonics) – can get underway. Learning all the GPCs in this manner takes 5-6 years.
In my previous two blogs, I discussed how BL fails with regard to points 1 through 4 above. Here I wish to focus on points 5 through 8.
Does (or should) context (point 5) play a role in skillful reading? Sure, but only after a word has been fully decoded (sounded out). Homophones (flour/flower), which decode to the same sound, need surrounding context to determine the precise meaning. Words like SNOW which have two plausible decoding results (does it rhyme with CHOW or with BLOW?) benefit from context. Also, as already mentioned, newly-encountered, but irregular words (HAVE, LOVE, SHOULD), may need some context as a decoding aid in order that the grapheme-phoneme connections that do exist allow identification, and subsequent mapping, to orthographic memory.
Apart from these three cases, other uses of context – especially to make the initial identification of the word – are futile. Share cites a study of over 5000 words with 675 children in grades 4 through 8, where the average predictability of words was only 29%. What’s worse is that the average predictability of content words, the words that carry the bulk of the sentence’s meaning, was only 10%. As Share notes, “it seems that contextual guessing is least helpful where it is needed most.” (p 153-54)
Orthographic mapping and self-teaching (points 6 and 7 above) are closely related, and together form the necessary and sufficient conditions for skilled reading and spelling to flourish for most children. Both have the same two prerequisites: knowledge of GPCs and blending.
But Balanced Literacy, with its “discovery” learning of GPCs takes far too long to cover this essential material. And blending, in the sense defined at the beginning of this essay, often does not occur at all. Blending is a signature characteristic, not of BL, but of Synthetic Phonics. In short, the twin abilities of orthographic mapping and self-teaching, if they occur at all, will do so only after many years of BL instruction. The trouble is, many BL students give up on reading long before OM and self-teaching activate, due largely to the non-rational sight word memorization and to the senseless word-guessing that occur in the initial two years of instruction.
The US National Reading Panel (NRP) made the Big Five (comprehension, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary) part of any discussion involving reading instruction. No one denies all five are important. But they are not equally important. Nor can they be targeted in any order as though they were independent of each other.
Advocates of BL misunderstand comprehension if they insist upon “teaching for meaning” from the start of instruction (See my blog on the Simple View of Reading). Beginners can’t focus directly on reading comprehension for a simple reason: they can’t yet decode the words on the page. Reading comprehension is a life-long pursuit that will advance with language comprehension provided the child is taught the blending (decoding) skills that allow OM to activate. The more sight words there are in the child’s decoding-free orthographic lexicon, the more short-term memory that child will have available for comprehension.
Proponents of BL misunderstand phonemic awareness to the extent that they emphasize phonemic skills other than the blending and segmenting (with letters) – the two PA skills which the NRP says “qualify as phonics” and which are part-and-parcel of any competent phonics program. Already in 2000, the NRP warned against the “rush to teach phonemic awareness” (2-33) and cautioned against doing PA exercises other than blending and segmenting with letters. (2-29, 2-38).
Backers of BL misunderstand phonics as long as they continue to avoid Synthetic Phonics, the only type of phonics that directly teaches, at the start of instruction, the GPCs and blending that make OM and self-teaching possible, in a reasonable amount of time, for the vast majority of students.
Promoters of BL misunderstand fluency to the extent that they believe a child can ever become a fluent reader without the ability to recognize most words on sight, that is, without the ability to engage in orthographic mapping. Fluency varies directly with the number of sight words in the child's orthographic lexicon.
Supporters of BL misunderstand vocabulary development to the extent that they believe a 60,000-word vocabulary is even remotely possible without explicitly providing children the requisite skills necessary to engage in Share’s “self-teaching.”
Towards the end of my blog on Synthetic Phonics (SP), I used a hypothetical teacher to briefly sketch how reading instruction can begin in a logical manner, teaching those exact skills (GPCs and blending) that are the “causal co-requisites” for kick-starting orthographic mapping and self-teaching. Under SP, no time is wasted on rote-memorization of sight words, on fanciful, “invented” spellings, or on guessing strategies that are doomed to failure. What’s amazing about Synthetic Phonics is that orthographic mapping and self-teaching can be underway by the 2nd week of instruction!
Advocates of SP take the Simple View seriously, and they use it to place the Big Five components of reading instruction in proper perspective. Synthetic Phonics takes (at most) two years to complete. During that time, SP teachers understand that reading comprehension (RC) is best served by focusing on decoding skills (D) and on language comprehension (LC), and they teach accordingly. (As you probably recall, the Simple View states: RC = D x LC.)
Synthetic Phonics teachers know that phonemic awareness, although it has recently become a hot topic, is nothing new. Here, again, is the National Reading Panel:
“It is important to note that when PA is taught with letters, it qualifies as phonics instruction. When PA training involves teaching students to pronounce the sounds associated with letters and to blend the sounds to form words, it qualifies as Synthetic Phonics. When PA training involves teaching students to segment words into phonemes and to select letters for those phonemes, it is the equivalent of teaching students to spell words phonemically, which is another form of phonics instruction. These methods of teaching phonics existed long before they became identified as forms of phonemic awareness training. Although teaching children to manipulate sounds in spoken words may be new, phonemic awareness training that involves segmenting and blending with letters is not. Only the label is new.” (2-34)
PA could never be regarded as separate from, or antecedent to, phonics if the “phonics” recommended by the NRP had been Synthetic Phonics instead of Systematic Phonics. Synthetic Phonics and Phonemic Awareness are inseparable. The PA training that is integral to Synthetic Phonics is training in blending – exactly the PA skill needed to activate OM and self-teaching.
SP teachers know that fluency and vocabulary are consequences of OM and self-teaching – and therefore consequences of training in GPCs and blending. A child will naturally become a fluent reader if she recognizes most words she sees as sight words (because she has orthographically mapped them) and does not have to struggle with sounding them out or guessing. Such fluency, of course, helps her comprehension as well.
Not only must a reader be capable of orthographic mapping and self-teaching if he is to eventually acquire a sight-vocabulary of 60,000 or more words, he must also be an avid reader – someone who joyfully and willingly reads across multiple genres and subject areas whenever he gets the chance. A child will read in this manner only if a competent teacher provided him the skills he needs to do so.
The paradox of reading instruction is this: Blending (decoding, sounding out) is necessary to engage in orthographic mapping and self-teaching. OM and self-teaching are necessary to build a large sight word vocabulary. And only a large sight word vocabulary (eventually) makes blending unnecessary.
© Stephen Parker (2019)
Reading Teachers and Parents - my free books for teaching reading with Synthetic Phonics can be found here.
Thanks to the following people who graciously offered suggestions as I prepared this essay: Max Coltheart, Pamela Snow, Bob Sweet, Jim Rose, Dylan Wiliam, and Dan Parker.