Flash Cards Good, Part 1

In the past, I was an Early Literacy Intervention teacher. I worked with the weakest readers, half an hour a day, in small group sessions. One of the things I had to do was improve their sight vocabulary. I used the standard Dolch lists (words selected for their frequency in child centered texts and their irregular spellings), doing what most primary teachers would do; I wrote the words on flash cards, and drilled, drilled, drilled.

We went through each deck of cards, a few at a time, reading and spelling the words over and over. We played games like snap and memory, and whatever else I could think of, to get these words into their heads and out of their mouths.

What a waste of six weeks.

No matter what I did, whenever those same words appeared in the books I assigned, my students almost never read them properly. They never read them fast. And sometimes they didn’t even recognize them as words they had studied.

So, after permanently altering my hairline, I had to reflect and find out why this ‘tried and true’ technique didn’t work for these kids (all the time wondering if it ever has).

Here is the conclusion I drew from these results. The students I was working with could not transfer the discrete skill of simple recall to the act of reading meaningful sentences. They were perfectly fine at recognizing and naming these words in the context of a meaningless list, but they couldn’t recognize, name, or even guess at those same words outside of the specific drill activity.

Now, in this role, I became somewhat of a self-proclaimed expert on conducting and analyzing running records (having the child read aloud from an unfamiliar text while I manually record everything that the child says and does, so as to determine strengths and weaknesses in the child’s reading behaviours). The most important component of a running record is determining which cuing system(s) the child uses, be it phonics (visual), grammar (syntactical), or context (meaningful), or any combination of the three. A strong reader will use all three systems, seamlessly switching from one to another, depending on the demands of the text.

And duh, sight word flash cards only focus on the visual cuing system, and poorly at that, as there is no focus on the phonic relationships at all. It’s just, “Here’s a word, say it.” No wonder these kids don’t recognize these sight words in contexts that demand grammatical and semantic knowledge!

How did I address this? In Part 2, I will describe a sight word flashcard method I developed, which incorporates all three cuing systems, in order to teach the whole word, not just how it looks on paper.


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