Sight Words Done Right!

Have you ever watched children working on a large stack of sight words? Word after word after word is looked at and guessed. Have you been the one pulling the cards off the stack and showing them to your child? Surely you have wondered if there is a better way. Well, there is a better way and I'm going to tell you about it with assistance from an article by The Reading Genie.

I have watched this process and it is painful. The children going through the process may not know how painful it is, but I do. Sight words are absolutely crucial to fluent reading, but memorizing stacks of words is not the way to do it.

I was prompted to write this blog post after finding the previously-mentioned article on Michelle Breum's blog, which I highly recommend you visit here: Beginning Reading Help. The article elucidates many of the feelings I've had while teaching children to read.

The primary reason for my distaste of the sight words process described in the opening is that it is much more difficult than the alternative I've witnessed over and over. The alternative is to start learning the 70 phonograms, blend the newly-learned sounds and read the words that appear as a result of the blending. I've witnessed the learning of sight words that results from reading the same words over and over. The Reading Genie has some excellent comments about this process:

Reliable access comes in the alphabetic phase, when children learn to decode words from spelling alone. Alphabetic phase reading allows children to rapidly acquire sight vocabulary. Contrary to past beliefs, sight-word learning does not depend on rote association. Children learn sight words in just a few quality encounters. Quality encounters connect letters in a spelling to phonemes in the pronunciation, usually by sounding out and blending. In other words, we typically learn sight words through careful decoding. Though decoding demands great attention in young readers, it sets up reliable access routes to retrieve the word. Once the access route is established, the tools to build it (correspondence rules) drop out. The spelling becomes a meaningful symbol of spoken word (i.e., it "looks like" the word). Learning to decode dramatically reduces the number of trials to sight recognition from an average of 35 trials to an average of 4 trials.

My initial intention was to only quote a few lines of this section of the article, but then I went back and read it again and decided you need to see all of it. This explains what I've seen for years. Children struggled to sound out words (and I struggled listening to them work so hard to decode), but they always learned the words. I pressed on because I believed in the decoding process. The most important line in the selection above really hits home with me: "Learning to decode dramatically reduces the number of trials to sight recognition from an average of 35 trials to an average of 4 trials." I'm all for helping my child decode a word four times as part of reading versus flashing a card to her 35 times independent of the reading process.

The other comment I like is when the author states words are learned in a few "quality encounters." I've never thought repeated prompting of entire words was quality. Conversely, a child working hard to blend known phonograms did seem quality because of the extra work involved in that process. Kudos to The Reading Genie for helping me understand what I intuitively believed!

The problem for the parent is that there are so many new words. It all pays off as children get older, though. The frustration of watching your child learn to read words like "Sam" and "bat" turns in to the amazement of watching them read large words later that you would swear they have never seen before. I had no understanding of the latter process until I read research that children are still sounding out those large words, they have just become so proficient at it you don't even know they are doing it.

The second part of my stategy for teaching children to read after they start learning phonograms is to make them practice by reading. The Reading Genie says:

Also, it takes lots of reading practice to acquire sight words and sight chunks. Children must be led to read voluntarily as a leisure time activity to take on this level of practice.

The beauty of the 70 phonograms is that the alphabet letters and their sounds are taught first, enabling children to start reading decodable books (Bob Books for instance). As they learn more phongrams, more words become available to them. If you haven't seen all 70 phonograms, I always recommend you listen to them.

​It took much work to get Ella to learn all those phonograms, but I spent very little time with her flashing whole words in front of her in an effort to teach her sight words (there were a few).

Don't spend time with your child with stacks of flash cards trying to teach sight words! Spend quality time instead teaching your child the phonograms and facilitating the learning of sight words in a much more natural way!

Thanks again to Michelle Breum and The Reading Genie.

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