WHY CHILDREN NEED TO READ PHONETICALLY AND NOT BY SIGHT
By Susan R. Johnson MD, FAAP (edited 10/3/2023 version)
Most of the children and teenagers I have assessed, who were previously diagnosed as having some type of non–verbal, learning disability and/or an Executive Function disorder, instead, are just fluent sight–readers, rather than being fluent, phonetic–readers, it is the teaching of fluent sight–reading that is creating so many attention and learning challenges in children, specifically in their abilities to deeply understand what they read, remember what they read (long–term), and comprehend math word- problems. In addition, reading a chapter–book by “sight–reading” (especially a book without associated pictures and illustrations), is such a difficult task and takes the joy out of reading. For a fluent sight- reader, having to write a book–report several days to weeks later, while using one’s own words and while spelling, punctuating, capitalizing, and using grammar, correctly, is almost impossible!
For fluent sight–reading is not “true reading“. It is simply a skimming and scanning skill (i.e. speed- reading). It just allows a student to quickly find a word, sentence, or number on the page, and is more appropriately taught in high school, college, and/or graduate school. When reading fluently by sight, a student just identifies each word by its first and last letters and overall length, and shape. Fluent sight- reading actually blocks the capacity to, SIMULTANEOUSLY, create, an inner–imaginative movie within the mind. This is because fluent sight–reading occurs in the same Right–Frontal/Prefrontal brain/mind- area as inner–imaginative plcturing. However, fluent sight–readers often can create an inner- imaginative movie, when someone else is reading to them or while listening to an audio–book.
At best, fluent sight–reading just allows the student to create a single, “slide–like” photograph, after reading one sentence or a paragraph. In other words, students have to “re–remember” some of the words they read by sight–recognition, and then create a single, slide–like picture from those words, as a second–step. To read a chapter book by sight–memory (especially without any illustrations) requires so much extra energy and work, slowly piecing–together one slide–picture after another. This is why fluent sight-readers miss key details and why they often so soon forget what they have read.
Once children can easily separate each word into its individual sounds (i.e. show phonemic awareness), then the Left–Parietal Lobe of their brains has developed enough for the reverse task (i.e. stringing the separate sounds, together, to form individual words). Phonemic awareness and stringing- sounds–together (i.e. Phonetic–based reading) usually start developing in girls around the 1st or 2nd grade, and in boys around the 3rd grade. Sometimes this Left–Parietal brain area can be partially blocked by unresolved cranial compressions/restrictions, that occurred during the child’s birth. In addition, these unresolved cranial compressions/restrictions, may also impact the development of visual–tracking, symmetrical eye–convergence, tactile, vestibular–balance, proprioceptive, and/or bilateral integration pathways. In this case, the cranial compressions/restrictions need to fully resolve before that child can easily discern the separate sounds within each word and effortlessly string the sounds, together. It is important to note, that unresolved cranial compressions/restrictions rarely impact the child’s ability to fluently sight–read, which can begin as early as 2 1⁄2 to 3 years of age.
Even if children do not have any unresolved cranial compressions/restrictions, impacting the L–Parietal Lobe, and even if all of their sensory and movement pathways are fully developed, they can still become fluent sight–readers, if pressured to learn lots of sight–words (especially via flash cards) in preschool, kindergarten, and/or 1st or 2nd grade. Children can also teach themselves how to recognize words by sight. This is in contrast to phonetic–based reading, which needs to be methodically taught.