More than flashcards – how to help your child learn sight words

What are sight words?

Sight words, also known as high frequency words, are the most common words encountered in printed text. According to research by Edward Fry, creator of the Fry Instant Word list, the 25 of these words make up one third of all printed material. Some of these words are easy for kids to sound out (like big) while others (like the and was) are irregular or “rule breakers.” Two common sets of sight words that schools test and teach are the Dolch words and the Fry word list.

Why are sight words important?

Strong readers have a large vocabulary of words they recognize by sight. Think about your reading here in this paragraph. Are you sounding out each word or recognizing most of them as whole units? Part of the process of learning to read is adding more words to your sight word memory, which increases reading speed and efficiency. Some words (think little, people, McDonald’s and Grandma) are difficult for young readers to figure out sound by sound, but they quickly come to recognize them because they are seen frequently and/or because they are meaningful and kids are motivated to recognize them!

Why do we have to do sight words for homework?

Some teachers assign sight word study for homework. For some kids, not a lot of practice is needed to memorize the sight words. Others need to look at them, read them and spell them again and again to get them into memory. If a child hasn’t memorized the age-appropriate sight words, it can make their reading slow, choppy and frustrating. It can also make it hard for them to spell in a way that others can read their writing.

Assigning this practice at home lets teachers focus on other aspects of teaching literacy. It also may make sense to practice at home because each child is likely to be focusing on a different set of sight words.

Ways to study sight words

There are lots of ways to make sight word practice fun and meaningful and to get the assignment done without losing your mind.

Tactile practice

Have your child write sight words in a shallow tray full of sand or salt, in shaving cream, or on the shower wall with shower paint. You can also fill a quart Ziploc bag with hair gel or colored liquid soap, seal the bag well, and write words with a finger on the plastic. The bag of gel is my favorite because it’s less messy, but any type of practice that gets your kids saying the word and its letters, feeling the shape of the letters as they write and trace and reading what they wrote is good practice because using multiple senses strengthens the memory of the word.

Use the cover-copy-check strategy:

  • Read the word and spell it out loud
  • Cover the word or flip the card over
  • Write it or trace it without looking
  • Check to see if you spelled it right

Games

When I’m working with kids, I’m likely to turn just about anything into either go fish, memory/concentration or 20 questions. Here are some game ideas for sight word study.

Go Fish: Write the words on pairs of flashcards. Use the cards to play go fish. Deal 5 cards to each player and ask, “Do you have was?” If a player draws a match, make sure they read the pair out loud before you let them keep it.

Memory: Use the same pairs of flashcards to play memory. Lay between 5 and 10 pairs of words on the table face down. Players take turns flipping over a pair of cards, reading the cards and keeping them if they match. Make sure they read the words out loud and don’t just match visually.

20 Questions: Lay out the cards where everyone can see them. One person thinks of one of the words, and the other asks questions to figure out which one it is. Ask questions like, “Does it have the /p/ sound?” or “Does it have 5 letters?” Encourage the child to move the cards around and eliminate/flip over cards that don’t fit the clues.

Online games:

  • Popcorn words on Fun4theBrain.com
  • Sight word games at Education.com
  • There are also an ever-changing array of sight word apps for Apple and Android

Mnemonics

Mnemonics are memory tricks, like learning the sentence, “My very educated mother just served us nachos” to remember that the planets in our solar system are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. (Remember when Pluto was a planet and our mother served us “nine pizzas” instead? My favorite is the sentence, “Big elephants can always understand small elephants” to help kids spell because.

For sight words, the tricks your child picks will be individual to him or her. Check out Pinterest or search for “spelling mnemonic __” for whatever word your child is struggling with.

Think about meaning

Sight words can be tricky because they make kids remember whether a word starts with w or wh and that the uz you hear in does spelled like the oze you hear in goes.

The question words who, what, when, where, why all have wh.

Does and goes are both verbs and they both get the +es suffix on the end, even though they are pronounced differently.

Spaced repetition

Last, but definitely not least, is the strategy of spaced repetition. The linked video is geared toward medical students, but the idea of the forgetting curve is just as true with kids learning sight words! I’ll post a video soon on how to set up a spaced repetition system for sight words, but here are the big ideas:

If you are starting from scratch, pick five words to focus on. Once the child can read those words accurately on the first try, move those words over and only study them every other day. After a week of studying them every other day, move them to the twice a week group. At the end of that week, move them to once a week, then on to once a month. If the child misses a word, move it back to every day practice until they can do it correctly again. As the child masters the every day words, introduce new ones to work on so they always have about five new (hard) words and a bunch of others that they are getting really good at.

After they can remember a word they haven’t studied in more than a week (monthly), retire the word. It is definitely mastered!

When can we stop practicing?

This question is tricky because it’s different for every child and every set of words. The goal with sight words is accuracy and automaticity. If your child’s teacher is assigning sight word homework, he or she is probably assessing them in the classroom and will decide when to move words out of the practice set. If the child can read the word accurately, with no hesitation, spell the word, and read it when they see it in a sentence or story, they have mastered it and can stop studying.

Boy doing homework

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