As I’ve been reading and researching online (something I do almost constantly when I’m not writing lesson plans or preparing materials!) I’ve been finding a lot of articles bashing the sight word lists (both the Dolch sight word list and the Fry instant word list). Now, here’s the thing. From the point of view of those articles, I agree completely. You see, what the articles were arguing against was not so much the existence of the lists, but rather the idea of teaching words as whole units (rather than teaching kids to sound them out phonetically). The articles argue that the human brain is finite, that it’s better to teach 100 phonemes which a child can then combine into thousands of words, rather than 100 words which he must then remember. And I am completely on board with that.
But, see, here’s the thing. The Dolch sight word list and the Fry instant list contain common words. That means that these are words which children are going to read, write, speak, hear, in every sentence, every story, every article, for the rest of their lives. These are important words. And that’s what makes these lists, I feel, so incredibly invaluable for EFL students. If a child can learn these words – learn to read them (phonetically, if possible!) and understand them and translate them – then he or she is halfway there. Halfway there! Can you imagine it? Halfway to understanding, speaking, reading, writing English!
The numbers vary, depending on which list you’re looking at; some say that the Dolch and Fry lists make up 50% of all written English; others 60%, others 75%. Some lists have 100 words, some 220, some a thousand. To me, specific numbers aren’t as important as that tangible, enticing promise: learn these, and you will be learning the Most Important Words. Learn these, and you will be making Real Progress.
You see, that’s what frustrates me so much about the way I’ve been teaching. (And it’s the strategy I’ve developed for working with our curriculum in an EFL setting; it’s at least halfway “my fault”.) I’ve taken our readers and focused on teaching the meaning of every word in them, so that when students read, they’ll be able to understand what they’re reading. That means that I’ve been teaching a lot of words that aren’t really “useful”. Changing that is going to be a long, slow process, but little by little, I am going to change it.