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Sight Words: Which to Teach and Which Not To

Sight Words

Which sight words should we teach?

Most teachers and reading specialists advocate some teaching of sight words: the question is which ones make sense to teach and which ones don’t make sense to teach? Don’t worry… At the end of the article you’ll get the assessments, word lists, activities, and suggested resources you need to teach. But, we do need to answer the question.

First, let’s dispel a few notions about how we learn to read. It’s not a which came first, the chicken or the egg? question some still suggest. In other words, the end result is not all that matters. Witness the plethora of reading intervention classes in upper elementary and middle schools to see how many of our students can “read,” but not understand what they are “word calling.” How we get to the end result does matter. Reading does not teach phonemic awareness, nor does reading teach phonics and multi-syllabic decoding.

We have plenty of reading research to positively assert that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is the most efficient approach to teaching beginning and remedial readers. The Look-Say Method of the Dick and Jane readers (sight words only instruction) and the Onset-Rime Method (b-ack, h-ack, j-ack, l-ack, p-ack, r-ack, s-ack, t-ack) have largely been placed on the dustbin of instructional approaches.

However…

We can certainly take things too far. We know some things, but we don’t know a lot of things about reading. We are only at the beginning stages of brain research.

So…

A prudent approach to both beginning and remedial reading instruction is to focus on decoding (phonics) and encoding (spelling) instruction and practice, but to also “throw in” a healthy dose of sight words practice just to be sure. But, all sight words are not created equal.

Which Sight Words Not to Teach and Why

Don’t pass out lists of high frequency reading or spelling words for students to memorize. Intuitively, it would seem to make sense to have students memorize the words that they are going to read or spell most often. However, our gut-level instincts lead us astray here.

  • The Dolch and Fry word lists of the most commonly used words in basal readers were never designed to provide a list of words to study. Countless U.S. classrooms still, unfortunately, have these reading goals (and assign parents the task of teaching): 10 words by the end of kindergarten; 100 words by the end of first grade; 200 words by the end of second grade; and 300 words by the end of third grade. As a reading specialist, I’ve worked with hundreds of elementary, middle school, high school, and even community college students who can word call each of these lists, but not read with comprehension.
  • Similarly, the Slosson Oral Word Reading Test and San Diego Quick Assessment were only designed to test word recognition and they do provide correlations to reading comprehension, but authors Richard L. Slosson and Charles L. Nicholson, as well as Margaret La Pray and Ramon Ross respectively, never advocated using their random sample assessments as instructional tools.
  • The “No Excuse” spelling word lists, floating around since Rebecca Sitton popularized this band aid approach to spelling mastery during the height of the whole language movement of the 1980s and 1990s still, unfortunately, serves as the entire spelling program for countless U.S. classrooms with absolutely no research validating its instructional validity.

Which Sight Words to Teach and Why

The first group of sight words are, indeed, words; the second and third groups are word parts.

  • Outlaw Words: These words break the law, that is they break the rules of the alphabet code and are non-phonetic. Words such as the and above are Outlaw Words because readers can’t decode them. I’ve heard way too many teachers and parents force children into sounding out words which can’t be done because they break the code. It is true that many of our high frequency and high utility words happen to be non-decodable, but many are not, so the efficient approach to sight words instruction is to teach and have students practice only the non-decodable words, not the high frequency words which mix non-decodable and decodable. Why confuse students? We have to teach these outlaw words because they are exceptions to our phonics rules.
  • Word Families (Rimes): A rime is a vowel and the final consonants in one syllable, such as “ack.” The rime usually follows an first consonant, e.g. “b,” or consonant blend, e.g. “tr,” to form words, e.g., “back” or “track.” Students apply these to other starting consonants (called onsets) to recognize or say new words. By the end of second grade, students should know every one of these 79 word families with automaticity through explicit, systematic phonics instruction. If they don’t, gap fill with flashcard practice and activities to help students master the rimes. I have found plenty of success teaching the word families that students do not know with sound-spelling blending. Again, the focus is remedial, not instructional, with the rimes.
  • High Frequency Greek and Latin Prefixes and Roots: Greek and Latin word parts make up over 50% of the words in the dictionary. Some are decodable in English, and some are not. Because of the strong reading-vocabulary connection, it does make sense to have students teach and practice the Greek and Latin high frequency prefixes and suffixes which they do not know. Like with rimes, the analogous relationships formed by morphological (meaning-based) word parts make this a sound sight words instructional focus. For example,  bi means two in bicycle, just as it means two in bicameral or biped.

FREE Sight Words Assessments

Outlaw Words: Click HERE to get both the teacher and student assessment pages.

Word Families (Rimes): Click HERE to get both the teacher and student assessment pages.

Greek and Latin High Frequency Prefixes and Suffixes: Click HERE to get both the teacher and student assessment pages.

Click HERE to get a one-page Reading Assessment Matrix for these sight word assessments.

FREE Sight Words Lists and Activities

Outlaw Words: Click HERE to get this sight word list and sample instructional activities.

Word Families (Rimes): Click HERE to get this sight word list and sample instructional activities.

Greek and Latin High Frequency Prefixes and Suffixes: Click HERE to get this sight word list and sample instructional activities.

But wait… Why not get these sight word assessments, sight word lists, ALL (not the sample) sight word activities plus 10 other reading assessments AND all of the instructional resources to teach to these assessments?

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

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Word Families (Rimes) Activities

Although systematic explicit phonics instruction should be the core of beginning reading instruction, as a reading specialist I support an eclectic approach to ensure success for all students. One such approach that I have used with success is teaching the basic word families, also known as rimes.

Now to be certain that I don’t lead you astray, let’s be clear that I do mean rimes, and not rhymes. Although the two are certainly related, especially in terms of instructional practice. Simply defined, the rime consists of a vowel and final consonants, such as “ack.” The rime usually follows an initial consonant, e.g. “b,” or consonant blend, e.g. “bl,” to form words, e.g., “back” or “black.”

Learning the common rimes can help beginning readers recognize common chunks of letters within words. Margaret Moustafa’s research has demonstrated that beginning readers tend to figure out new words through analogy (1997). In other words, they connect “what they already know” to “what they need to know” through word similarities. Goswami found that both beginning and dyslexic readers benefit from learning and practicing rimes (2000). To summarize, if beginning readers learn to recognize the “ack” rime, they will be able to use that chunk to learn words with different single consonant onsets to form words such as “back,” “hack,” “jack,” “lack,” “rack,” “sack,” “tack,” as well as words with different consonant blend onsets, such as “black,” “crack,” and “stack.”

Now, good reading teachers will note that teaching rimes could be used to side-step blending the individual vowel and final consonant sounds, just as teaching the consonant blends could side-step blending the individual consonant sounds. Thus, with the consonant blend onset “bl” and its rime “ack,” the word black becomes two pronunciation units, rather than four. I certainly would not advocate these short-cuts; however, once beginning readers have mastered, or are in the process of mastering how to blend, I see no reason to avoid practicing blending automaticity with rimes. I do suggest leaving the consonant blends to the traditional blending strategies rather than practicing these as chunks because mispronunciations, such as “bluh” for bl, will create more harm than good.

Parents can be helpful partners in practicing rimes with their children. Although oftentimes well-intentioned parents can do more harm than good when they teach their children to blend improperly, practicing rimes is almost foolproof. A good list of rimes, such as in the following Word Family (Rimes Activities), will give parents the tools they need. Also, reading rhyming books, such as Dr. Seuss, are wonderful practice.

For older students, say second-graders or reading intervention students (think Response to Intervention Tiers I and II), this Rimes Assessment with recording matrix can provide the data teachers need to effectivelydifferentiate instruction.

So for those of you who have read this far, here are some terrific Word Families (Rimes) Activities to practice rimes in the classroom. You may also wish to use the phonics materials and activities found in these articles: Phonics Games and in How to Teach Phonics. Also, check out these related Phonemic Awareness Activities.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

Syllabication is for all ages. Download these FREE instructional resources for your students:

Get the Syllable Awareness Assessment FREE Resource:

Get the Syllable Rules FREE Resource:

Get the Accent Rules FREE Resource:

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How to Teach Syllabication: The Syllable Rules

As beginning readers begin to recognize the connection between speech sounds and letters (phonemic awareness), use the alphabetic code to begin sounding out and blending letter sounds (phonics), and write down the letters to represent those sounds (spelling), they also begin to recognize certain patterns in single-syllable words.

Precocious Paula notices that some sounds are used more than others: long and short vowels more than consonants. In fact, Paula observes that the teacher always writes the letters representing these sounds in different colors than the consonants.  She also sees that the charts on the walls have these same colors. Bonus-year Bobby notices that every word that his teacher writes has at least one of those vowel spellings. Already-reading Alma may even ask why one vowel sound can have more than one spelling. Conforming Carl may be upset that you won’t let him sound out the teacher’s list of Outlaw Words (non-phonetic sight words).

In other words, through implicit or explicit instruction/practice, children will begin to develop recognition of syllable patterns. As more complex stories and advanced instruction layer in multi-syllabic words, most students identify these syllable patterns and apply this knowledge in their reading and writing. About 80% of students at the end of third grade can readily identify syllables and use this knowledge to guide their reading and writing (of course a higher percentage in some schools and a lower percentage in others).

Multi-syllabic decoding (phonics) and encoding (spelling) are the keys to the kingdoms of reading fluency and academic vocabulary. Reading multi-syllabic words is also a fundamental skill required for the new genres of reading that most students begin in 4th grade: their expository history and science texts.

The 80% require practice and refinement of skills to develop automaticity in reading and writing. The 20% require differentiated instruction: some on basic phonemic awareness, some on the decoding, some on the encoding, some on common sight words. Following is an instructional strategy that will scratch both the 80% and 20% itches. The scratch will provide permanent relief to the former, but only temporary relief to the latter; however, instructional strategies that accomplish both at the same time and certainly worth using.

Spelling Transformers Syllabication Strategy Sample Attachment

Time: The Spelling Transformers whole-class activity takes only three minutes of concentrated, whole class practice, twice per week.

Who Benefits: The instructional activity is beneficial for remedial, grade-level, and accelerated readers and spellers  ages seven and older.

Instructional Objectives: Over the year, students will learn to apply each of the Syllable Rules and all of the phonetic patterns in their reading and spelling.

Tactics: Rather than an inductive “Here are the rules-with examples-now apply them” approach, students practice many examples of each syllable pattern to achieve mastery of that pattern. The syllable patterns are taught, using nonsense syllables  because students ages seven and older have extensive sight word vocabularies, which can interfere with learning how changes in spelling affect pronunciation and syllabication.

Materials/Preparation: The Spelling Transformers activity is designed to use the display projector. Make a card with one corner cut off as a rectangle to isolate each word part (see Sample Attachment) and cut a bottom flap to more easily slide the card on the transparency. Develop nonsense word lists that correspond to the Syllable Rules and follow the instructional phonetic pattern of short vowels, consonants, long vowels, consonant blends, silent final “e,” vowel digraphs, and vowel diphthongs (see Sample Attachment). Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary has 17 such lists ready for your projector.

Directions: Teach students to respond out loud, whole class, as soon as the nonsense syllable is isolated on the projector. Tell students that they must pronounce each syllable out loud, and not just whisper. Continue at a rapid pace for three minutes. Formatively assess student progress and repeat difficult transformers. When students have universally mastered the syllable pattern, explain the relevant rule and then move on to the next syllable rule.

For the Spelling Transformers syllabication activity and more, check out… Teaching Reading Strategies.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

Syllabication is for all ages. Download these FREE instructional resources for your students:

Get the Syllable Awareness Assessment FREE Resource:

Get the Syllable Rules FREE Resource:

Get the Accent Rules FREE Resource:

Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , , , , ,