What to do with those pesky sight words?

One of the questions that I am most frequently asked (by both teachers and parents) pertains to sight words.  You know sight words – they are those pesky words that appear frequently in texts. If we were playing Charades, you’d use the “small word” sign to indicate a sight word. Sight words must be instantly recognized because of both their frequency and because they are not usually decodable. To complicate matters, sight words are not easily defined. How would I explain what “how” means to a five-year old? What is the definition of ‘because’?

No matter what you call them – Dolch words, Frye words, function words – there’s no escaping how important they are. Sight words make up 50 to 70 percent of any text – therefore a huge focus in grades Kindergarten through three is sight word instruction. Our kids can’t afford waste any of their precious cognitive resources on struggling through sight words. And even though sight words are those little, short words, they hold important meaning in text. Don’t believe me? Take a look at these two pictures that highlight the importance of high-frequency words.

Now, let me stand on my sight word soapbox for a second and say that I don’t think we are doing enough to make sight words automatic and instantaneous for young readers. In too many classrooms, students drill through flash cards of sight words. But we see far too often that when children go to read those very same sight words in an authentic text, they struggle to do so. What’s the problem here?! Why can they read it on a flash card but not in a book? What presents these sight words from ‘sticking’?

First, sight words won’t stick until kids have had multiple exposures to them. Reading researcher Catherine Snow (of Harvard Graduate School of Education) estimates that kids need 10-15 exposures to sight words for acquisition. My hunch is that with flashcards, we are nowhere near that number.

Secondly, sight words instruction needs to be connected to text. Proficient readers don’t encounter sight words in isolation; we encounters them in authentic reading. So if we are trying to teach the sight word ‘was’ (irregular because it is a CVC word that does not follow the short –a family), how about we send kids on a ‘word hunt’ for how ‘was’ appears in magazines, their independent reading, the newspaper, etc! It doesn’t matter what text we choose – it matters that students can recognize that word in text! In one classroom I visited, students went on ‘sight word searches’ with a magnifying glass and the newspaper, and then they kept track of which sight words appeared most frequently (spoiler alert: ‘the’ beat out ‘was’ in their class content. This is friendly competitive that I can support!).

First the child reads the sight word aloud. Then, he heads to the white board to write it. Then he uses magnets to build it. Next, he uses kinetic sand to write it while saying it. Next we hunt for it in whatever text we are reading. For additional support, he chooses two words to combine into a silly sentence. This third grader combined 'been' and 'usually' into the potty-humor sentence: He usually poops twice a day, but it had been much longer! (Note to self: Next time, tell him no toilet humor!)

Watch as this third grader reads the word, builds the word, and writes the sight word. In sum, we've got to do better than drilling kids with sight words!

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