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See ya, Sight Words

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

UPDATED: May 2022

Sight words. Popcorn words. Camera words. They are a huge focus of many early elementary school classrooms but are they worth it? Spoiler alert: no.

What is a sight word?

Sight words are not a kind of word, but instead a concept. In schools, the term sight words most commonly refers to the concept of teaching highly common words, such as not and can, as a chunk. Children are taught to memorize these words in reading and spelling through tools like flashcards and drills.

In the research, sight words refers to words that a person reads automatically, quickly and accurately without the need to sound it out.

Why not teach reading by sight words?

You might be thinking: well when I see the word "can" I read and spell it as a chunk so why is this not how my child should be taught?

Reason #1: Memorizing words is a burden on a child’s developing brain. Multiply that by 220 words (as per the Dolch Word list, a commonly used framework), that’s a LOT of brain power to memorize only a fraction of the words you will encounter when reading a book. Imagine having to memorize 220 phone numbers?! Phew, no thanks.

Reason #2: Memorizing words does not help a child learn to read other words. I often chat with parents who are frustrated that their child knows so many sight words but struggles to read text or even other single words. If a child is taught to memorize words, then we cannot expect them to use a totally different strategy (sounding out) for new words.

How should I teach my child to read words then?

The short answer: teach and encourage your child to sound out words. The vast majority of words in English can be sounded out based on the connection between letters and the sound(s) they make (e.g., the letter s says ‘sss’) and other patterns/rules (e.g., put silent ‘e’ on the end of the word and it makes the vowel says its name). Once you have taught the sounds of just short vowels, single consonants and consonant digraphs (sh, ch, th, wh, ck), your child has the tools to read 25% of the 220 Dolch sight words! Now that is bang for your buck!

What words can I teach as a sight word?

Words that do not follow the letter-sound correspondences or other patterns/rules should be taught as a chunk (there’s just no way around it!). These words should be solidified for both reading and spelling so make sure to practice both. Here’s a few to get you started: the, to, do, of, was,

What should I do if my child is struggling with reading?

There are wonderful tips for this answer in a blog post I wrote here. A speech-language pathologist with specified training in literacy can provide a comprehensive assessment to determine all areas that are impacting your child’s ability to reach their reading and writing potential, as well as targeted intervention to help develop all of these areas.

At We Communicate, we provide literacy services to children in kindergarten and older. We use evidence-based approaches that will help your child become a more confident reader and strive for their potential! If you are interested in discussing your child’s literacy skills, please reach out to us today.

The gist:

  • Children should not be encouraged to memorize words as chunks if they follow sound rules because it takes a lot of brain power and does not support reading new words

  • The main strategy to focus on is teaching your child to sound out words

  • Teach words as chunks only if they don’t follow the common rules (e.g., was)

  • Reach out to a professional with expertise in literacy to support your child

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