Sight words are a special high frequency category of words that students are instructed to recognise automatically. The term “sight word” can mean several different things: high frequency words, phonetically irregular words, or familiar words that require no effort to recall (orthographic lexicon or sight vocabulary). When educators refer to sight words they are usually referring to high frequency words, some of which may be phonetically irregular. When learning high frequency words, instant recognition is important due to the frequency at which these “sight words” occur. While the end goal is that most words become automatic and firmly embedded in a child’s orthographic lexicon, how this ability is developed and how sight words are instructed are often a cause of confusion.
How Does Combining Phonics and Sight Word Instruction Benefit Beginning Readers?
It is well established in the research that students require simultaneous instruction of phonics and sight words. Both sets of skills have been shown to assist beginning readers to develop a better understanding of the text. Research tells us that the process by which words become a part of the orthographic lexicon is through orthographic mapping which builds on the skills of phonemic segmentation (sounding out) and letter-sound knowledge. Automatic recognition of the words by “sight” is the end product that is achieved through systematic and explicit teaching.
A complication with sight word instruction is that a proportion of “sight words” do not follow regular phonic rules. Another complication is that those words that do conform to phonic principles demand phonic knowledge that the beginning reader may not have yet acquired. PLD’s unique approach allows children to learn more high frequency words with less effort by teaching the right words at the right time and in the right way.
For the beginning reader, this will facilitate greater success and reduced frustration.
The following strategies can be applied to all sight words.
Tip #1: There is a Need for Better Terminology and Understanding
“Sight words” mean so many things to different people. The term “sight word” often provides a false impression that these commonly used words are to be learned by sight (or visual memorisation). Research does not support teaching these words as visual whole units without paying attention to the phoneme-grapheme (sound to letter) correspondences. It is far more useful to regard “sight words” as high frequency words that need to be explicitly taught so they are learned by sight. Automatic recognition of the words by sight is the end product that is achieved through systematic and explicit teaching.
Tip #2: Teach Pre-Literacy Skills BEFORE Introducing “Sight Words”
Too often “sight words” are taught too early when students still have a very shaky grasp of the prerequisite skills. The International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction reminds us that “children should never be asked to memorise lists of “sight words” before they have received instruction in phonological and phonemic awareness letter-sound correspondences and blending and segmenting and have at least started to apply decoding skills to convert written symbols to spoken sounds” (2015, p.1). Continue reading more of this compelling research here.
Teachers can support young students transitioning to literacy by teaching the prerequisite skills first so they will have the skills to process words.
Important prerequisite skills:
- Students need to know most of the alphabet sounds (rather than letter names).
- Students also require the phonemic awareness skill of blending so they understand how a word is formed.
It makes no sense to send home “sight words” before our students have developed these two skills.
Tip #3: Teach From Simple to Progressively More Complex
Introduce short, regular words initially and systematically work through to the more complex. During the early stages of learning to read, PLD does not recommend providing mixed lists of “sight words”. Unfortunately, we see this approach far too often. A mixed sight word approach is the more complicated approach to EARLY sight word learning as it typically causes stress.
An effective alternative is to group words so that you are developing a word attack strategy that can be applied to a group of high frequency words. There is such a large range of sight words available and the choice of your list is up to you, but what you need to do regardless of what sort of sight words you’re using, is group them so you’re giving your students a strategy to master that set of sight words.
- Firstly, cluster the regular words that are decodable. (These you may choose to colour code as green).
- Secondly, cluster all of the words that you can still apply a decoding principle but students will need to ‘stop and think’ because there is one element of irregularity. (These you may choose to colour code as orange).
- Thirdly, you have words that require phonic knowledge. This set of words make sense when digraphs and phonic concepts have been taught. Most words in this category are regular, but students require the phonic knowledge. (These you may choose to colour code as blue).
- Finally, the words which are highly irregular, a visual strategy will be required.
To save time, PLD’s popular Time-Savers resources include ready-made lists for teachers to copy and give to students. The decoding and encoding word lists include simple to complex code and include HFW where they align with the phonic concept being taught. The words are colour coded according to the sounding out strategy i.e. by phoneme, rime or syllable. The symbol “HF” is next to any HFW that appears on the lists. Teachers following the PLD process initially (and consistently) screen students to determine spelling levels using the downloadable screening and tracking manuals for their year level (Early Years, Foundation, Year 1 & 2 and Year 3, 4, 5 & 6).
PLD’s Synthetic Phonics and High Frequency Words Teaching Sequence Downloads
Tip #4: Group Similar High Frequency Words Together
For example: do/to/who, be/he/me/she, how/now/down or with/this/then/them/than. This is where the boundary for teaching sight words or phonics becomes unclear because by focusing on these high frequency words, phonics is also being instructed.
Tip #5: Integrate Sight Word Teaching Within a Structured Synthetic Phonics (SSP) Approach
Teach explicitly, systematically, and within your SSP program. DSF provides an overview of recommended evidence-based SSP programs and how sight words are integrated within the phonics teaching and SSP. Remember: teaching sight words (or high frequency words) is not separate from phonics instruction.
Tip #6: Move Away From Dated Approaches to Teaching Sight Word
High frequency words need to be explicitly taught. Whilst multisensory activities such as sand-paper and shaving cream are fun, they do not produce results for your students.
The orthographic mapping theory of reading development explains that the words we can recognise automatically (i.e. by sight) are anchored in our long-term memory by connections between the pronunciation (phonological knowledge), our ability to identify phonemes within these words (phonemic awareness), and the letter sequence of words spelling (letter-sound correspondence). Therefore the most efficient way to teach these high frequency words (or any word) is to teach students to map letters to the sounds they hear in the word.
Tip #7: The PLD Approach to the Explicit Teaching of High Frequency Words
PLD recommends teaching high frequency words through orthographic mapping. This is an auditory-based process where words are presented verbally without showing the written word and students are taught to map letters onto the sounds they hear in the word. The research explains that this auditory-based approach is likely superior to more traditional approaches which focus on presenting a word and requiring memorisation via a visual route.
- Introduce the word orally.
- Segment the word into phonemes verbally (NO letters) and emphasise each phoneme.
- Build phonological framework of the word.
- Read and spell the word several times.
- Elaborate if possible by discussing the meaning of the word or using in a sentence.
- Include in a stack of flash cards for repeated reading and spelling practice.