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How to Teach Sight Words

Sight Words

Which sight words should we teach?

To begin, let’s get on the same page as to what we mean by sight words. The traditional definition has meant those words which include phonetically irregular sound-spellings for example, what. In this example, the “a” spelling has a short /u/ sound, not a phonetically regular short /a/ sound.

Synonyms for sight words include tricky words (especially used by teachers in Great Britain), heart words, rulebreakers, and the term I use in my own reading intervention program, outlaw words.

Many in the Science of Reading movement have changed the traditional meaning of sight words to refer to those words (phonetically regular and not), which have become unitized i.e., instantly recognizable in terms of their phonemes, application to graphemes, and meaning.

Some teachers have confused sight words with high-utility, high-frequency words. Teachers might pass out the 100 word Fry list, the 220 word Dolch list, or the various Rebecca Sitton word lists.

Still other teachers have confused sight words with word tests, such as the Slosson or San Diego Quick assessments.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll stick with the traditional terminology i.e. sight words refer to those words which include phonetically irregular sound-spellings.

Some teachers have been led to believe that teaching sight words is antithetical to explicit systematic phonics instruction. I would argue that a reasonable approach to reading instruction would focus on phonics and supplement with sight words and rimes instruction.

Why Teach Sight Words?

Sight word instruction involves rote practice of non-decodable high frequency words (outlaw words), word families (rimes), and common Greek, Latin, and English affixes (sight syllables). Although most of the rimes and sight syllables are decodable, their high frequency in text makes rote memorization desirable. The goal is reading automaticity. The focus is on the non-decodable sounds within the words, not the word as a whole. For example, in the sight word, should, only the “oul” spelling is irregular; the “sh” and “d” are regular. As such, good sight word practice involves isolation and analysis of the irregular sound-spelling with example words.

From the outset, it must be stated that ight word instruction is not a substitute for explicit, systematic phoneme awareness and phonics instruction.

Why is sight word instruction important?

Because older students generally have a more advanced vocabulary and bank of sight words than do younger students, it is important to draw upon these strengths to improve reading ability. It would not be wise to “start from scratch” with remedial readers. Teachers shouldn’t narrow instruction to solely remediate phonemic awareness and phonics deficits. Remedial students should quickly “fill in the gaps” as indicated by sight word diagnostic assessments through concentrated practice. The teacher should teach to these deficits concurrently with other program components.

Why don’t some students know the sight words and how does this affect their reading?

Some students have auditory processing, visual processing, or language processing problems which interfere with sight word acquisition. Inability to discriminate between speech sounds (phonemes) may have prevented fully developed phonemic awareness. Students may have difficulty in identifying the symbols or with the spatial arrangement of letters in words. Others may have problems connecting the alphabetic symbols to meaning.

Since phonemic awareness is a prerequisite to effective reading, students who lack this ability will have severe problems learning how to pronounce words sound by sound (decoding) and spell words (encoding). Inability to automatically process non-decodable outlaw words and non-decodable sight syllables retards reading fluency. Students spend time trying to pronounce words and syllables that are impossible to decode. Inability to rapidly recognize the analogous relationships of the rimes also retards reading fluency.

Can struggling readers with learning disabilities learn sight words?

Yes. The phonemic awareness and phonics instructional strategies will help students build on their strengths to ameliorate their relative weaknesses. A multi-sensory instructional approach will be particularly beneficial. As David Kilpatrick has noted, phonemic awareness is not simply the precursor to phonics instruction. Blending and segmenting certainly are necessary to phonics instruction; however, phonemic isolation and substitution are also essential skills that many good decoders lack. Without solid phonemic awareness and phonics foundations, students will struggle to achieve the levels of automaticity needed for fluent reading and good comprehension.

Sight words instruction is important, but tossing out a deck of flashcards and expecting that rote memorization will teach a struggling reader to learn to read well simply will not achieve that end.

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.

Teaching Reading Strategies features the 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

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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