In 1936, a University of Illinois education professor named Edward William Dolch published his list of 220 non-noun sight words in Volume 36 of The Elementary School Journal. The list was based into his research into children's books, and the words are divided into Pre-Primer, Primer, First, Second, and Third Grade levels. In 1948, he published his revised list in his book, Problems in Reading. Dolch deliberately restricted is list to 220 words, as he was critical of "lists [that] contain five hundred words or more, too many to be given drill as a sight vocabulary."
So somehow memorizing 500 is too many but 220 is cool? Good story.
The bulk of Dolch's academic work clearly lays out his perspectives as a whole-word or look-say proponent. Nowhere on his list does he explain how the writing system works, how or why words came to be spelled the way they are, or how some of the words may be related to each other. It's just a list. He's so fond of lists, that he created a separate list of 95 nouns (the main list has no nouns).
While the list has been vilified by the Phonics Cartel for generations, the notion of targeting so-called sight words is alive and well in many systematic phonics programs. This is in spite of the current admonitions based on more modern research from folks like Mark Seidenberg and Stanislas Dehaene about the role of understanding language structure – as opposed to whole-word memorization – in learning to read and spell.
In 1957, Dr. Edward Fry (yes, they are both named Edward) published a new list, calling it Instant Words and basing it on the Dolch list as well as lists by Rinsland (1945), Thorndike and Lorge (1944), and others. Fry's research indicated that the first 25 words comprise 1/3 of all texts published in English. Those 25 words are 100% function words, something I'm not sure Fry understood. He updated his list in 1980 and again in 1996, according to his research. The first 100 words comprise about half of all published text, and the first 300, about 65%.
Unlike the Dolch list, Fry's list includes all parts of speech (except interjections). Proponents of the list claim that children who memorize all 1000 words (10 lists of 100 words each) will have mastered 90% of all the words they'll need for their own literacy tasks and activities.
But you know what will help children master 100% of words? Understanding the system.
Teachers around North America are burdened with impossible expectations for making their kiddos memorize all of these words, with no real framework for understanding. I've heard from a few.
So I'd like to offer a Fry List Pop-Up, to help those who have to work with this infernal list (1) learn to organize words for meaningful study, and (2) consider the value of having such a list for study, if not for memorization. Details available to paid subscribers.