What are Sight Words?

And Why do they Matter?

Hey parents! Welcome to the school year! Here’s your supply list and oh, here’s the list of 50 or 100 sight words your child needs to master this year. Please practice at home. And here you are wondering, “What are sight words?” 

Usually, when we talk about sight words, what we really mean are irregular words, words that cannot be sounded out with the rules that a child knows at this stage. Many reading programs – whether they are consistent with the Science of Reading or not – have sight word lists that students need to master.

Teachers may call these sight words, trick words, high frequency words, or irregular words. Usually, they’re referring to the same thing: a list of words like the, a, for, once, two, too, to and who, what, when, where, why, and how that are frequently found in stories for children but that do not follow the early rules we teach kids for recognizing words.

Ideally, these words should be taught thoughtfully and systematically as part of comprehensive classroom reading instruction. For some reason, though, they are often turned over to parents or volunteers and these adults are given very little direction except to help children learn the words. 

Some teachers send home a few words every week as part of their classroom instruction. Others send the whole list and just let you know when it needs to be learned. If teaching sight words is left up to you, what should you do?

What’s the best way to help kids learn sight words?

Even though we often focus on what makes these words “weird” or hard to read, at the end of the day they are just words, made up of sounds. In fact, very few words are totally irregular. Almost all words on a typical early grade sight word list have just one irregular sound. That makes it much easier to teach these words because you can use what a child already knows about letter and sounds and build on that.

Decide where to start

You may have gotten a long list of words that is supposed to last the entire year. Or you might have gotten a shorter selection of words for this week or this month. Either way, the first step is to assess what your child already knows. Looking at the whole list of words can be overwhelming for kids, so consider putting a few at a time on a whiteboard or on index cards. If you can, make a game out of it. You can put numbers on the words and roll dice for your child to choose which one to read next. For school, your child may be required to read and spell the target words, or read them only. Either way, writing the words will help build a stronger memory than reading them alone.

Some of these words may fit patterns your child already knows. For example, if your child can sound out the word cat, they can read the high frequency word can. If they don’t know it right away, remind them of the strategies they already have for sounding out words, like tapping sounds on their fingers. On the other hand, don’t worry if your child is sounding out words that the teacher says should be sight words. Being able to automatically read those words comes from multiple exposures, not from some kind of magic that leads children to recognize them as whole words.

A sight word is really any word that we can recognize without focusing on the sounds. For example grandma, grandpa, McDonald’s, and their own names maybe sight words for your children even if they are words they cannot yet sound out. They recognize those few words visually, maybe even before they can really read. The trouble comes when kids try to learn all the words they read visually. The

(Good) Practice Makes Perfect

Study the parts

Looking at the irregular sight word was and chanting “w-a-s, w-a-s, w-a-s,” maybe with multi-colored tracing or writing and rewriting, is a popular strategy for practicing sight words, but these flashcards and games are also mostly practicing the look of the word. 

Instead, focus on the sounds of the word and how each sound is spelled. 

Kids often spell was “wuz” because they hear the /w/ sound and spell it with a w, then hear the /u/ and /z/ sounds and spell those the same way they’d usually spell those sounds. To spell was correctly, they need to notice that the /u/ sound has an unusual spelling here, letter a. Same with the /z/ sound. It might help to remember that s can spell the /z/ sound in other words they might know, like is and has. By drawing their attention to the unusual spellings in the word, parents can help kids remember these irregular parts.

The really cool thing is that once kids start to think about words this way, they notice the irregular sounds in other words and start to teach themselves to “map” sight words this way. I noticed my 6-year-old started doing this with new sight words after about six months of me taking the lead in introducing tricky irregular words. 

So don’t worry, you probably won’t be helping your child learn sight words forever! Instead, you’re helping them build a set of tools that’s going to help them learn on their own.

Learn the history

Another tool that really helps when teaching sight words is remembering that we spoke English long before we started writing it. Spelling was invented as a way to write down that spoken language. The way we spell words doesn’t just reflect how they sound. It also reflects their history and where they come from (Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, Greek – so many influences on English).

Sometimes a sight word doesn’t make sense because it’s an old spelling pattern (like in though and said) where the pronunciation has changed over time. Sometimes comparing an irregular word to another word you know can help you remember the spelling.

For example:

  • say  They say, “Hi!” (It’s happening now)
  • say + s = says She says, “Hi!” (It’s happening now)
  • say + ed = said She said, “Hi,” yesterday. (It happened in the past)

When kids write “said,” they often spell it “sed.” This makes sense because it’s what they hear. But if they think about this pattern and remember it’s a form of the word “say,” it’s easier to remember to spell it with an e. 

(Older students might also know that sometimes when a word ends in y, we change it to i when we add an ending, like happy and happier.)

Going through the words this way is slower. You might only practice one or two words at a time. But the good news is, once you teach a word this way today, it will be much quicker to review tomorrow.

What does sight word mean, anyway?

OK, now that we have the nuts and bolts of sight word study at home, you might still be left with the question, “What are sight words, really?”

Scientists used to think that readers recognized words automatically by knowing them as a visual whole. Now we know that the brain uses its language system to recognize and store printed words. Basically, mature readers see a word and convert it into sounds so fast that we’re not aware of it. That’s what lets us read words in all capital letters or different fonts.

Yet, the visual approach is what most teachers emphasize. Even in groups of highly trained teachers, I often see questions about how to explain the spelling of a word like “though” and a comment like, “that’s just a sight word.” It’s not just a sight word. Sight words are incredibly important because the more words a reader recognizes automatically, the more fluently she can read, and the more she can focus on understanding the story. 

When we tell a kid, “that’s just a sight word,” we’re shutting down the conversation and missing an opportunity for learning. If they know it, it becomes a sight word. And if they don’t, telling them “it’s a sight word” doesn’t help them. 

Can you tell I get a little fired up about this? 

Hopefully these tools for learning sight words will help your child become a more confident, knowledgeable reader and save you some time supervising homework!

If your child still needs some help with their reading and writing development, contact me for a free tutoring consult. We have openings for one-on-one tutoring and some small groups, too!

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