What are sight words?
Sight words are words that are recognized simply by sight. When learning to read, they become words that are recognized in an instant - you don't have to think about them because you just know them! They are typically short high frequency words (see Dolch or Fry word lists for examples) that are most commonly used in text. Sight words can include words such as the, I, and, in, it, were, was, know, should, etc.
The problem with sight words is that they can become the most confusing part of learning the English language. Why? Well, we spend all this time teaching rules of language and phonics to children, just to tell them that there are about 200+ words where these rules don't really apply and that they need to just memorize them.
When I try to explain this to kids, they look at me like I've lost my mind. It goes something like this: "I know, I know, I just spent a year telling you that the letter k says /k/ and now I'm telling you that it's silent in the word know. Which makes a different sound than the word now, even though they look the same. Oh and while we have the word though in the mix, let's look at how that's not the same as the word thought, or tough."
I've shared this video before, but because it perfectly explains the challenge of teaching sight words, I am going to share it once more ICYMI.
The best way to teach sight words is through repeated practice. I don't mean sit and drill your children with the same boring set of flashcards for hours each day - that will just make them hate sight words (and probably you).
Repeated exposure and practice does not need to mean boring!! It just means giving your child opportunities to see, read, write, build, trace and explore the words as often as possible.
Here are some ways you can do this:
- Write out the words with fingers in a tin foil tray of shaving cream or sand
- Build the words with playdough
- Use magnetic letters on a cookie sheet
- Cut and paste letters into words
- Stamp letters into words
- Paint the words (or reverse paint --> paint the page and use a Q-tip to write the words)
- Write the words on Jenga or Duplo blocks and build/play (Dollar stores sell cheap dupes of these products in case you don't want to ruin the expensive stuff!)
- Write out the words in fun ways (silly letters, big and small, block letters, etc.) in yellow marker and have your child trace the words
- Word Detective: get out a magnifying glass and find the words in your favourite picture book
- Graph the Words: Make a bar graph and tally how many times you find the words such as a, the, is, it, and etc. in the book!
- Sight Words Bingo (you can make/print your own, or use the Word Bingo app!)
- Sight Words Matching (so easy to make with paper plates or index cards!)
Here is a great list of other Sight Words games you can play!
The more your child sees the words, the quicker they will memorize them!
How do I keep track of which words my kid knows?
Great question! So glad you asked.
Here is what I do! I print out a list of either the Dolch or Fry Words (I prefer Dolch, personally) and cover up all but one column or section. I try to avoid going alphabetically, so in the example below I would go one row at a time. The photo below links to a free downloadable resource!
I pick a coloured highlighter (I usually let the child choose, because choice = empowerment and engagement!) and put a mark at the top of the page with the highlighter and the date of assessment. Before beginning I explain the instructions like this to the child:
"We're going to read some words! Here's the deal - if you know it right away, FANTASTIC! I'll highlight it if you do! If you don't - meaning if you have to sound it out or really think about it, it's NO BIG DEAL! It just means we need to keep practicing it and we'll put that on our special list of words to focus on over here (have a spare sheet of paper nearby). You have to tell me if it goes on the list or not.. okay?"
This prepares them for the following scenarios:
a) Success! They knew the word. Validated with highlighter.
b) Didn't know the word. Time for self-reflection and awareness - Did I have to sound it out? Did I know it right away? They have a plan in place already for this - the word goes on the list! No big deal.
The key - this moves quickly. Don't let them dwell on any word more than a few seconds. If they dwell, they have the opportunity to feel disappointed in themselves and we don't want that! Stress the main idea that sight words are instant - we either know them right away or we don't know them yet (Hello, Growth Mindset!). Emphasize a low pressure environment and a carefree attitude about whether or not they know the word. Avoid check marks or X's, crossing out words or any marks out of a total. Always reward progress, no matter how small. Learning one new word should feel just as exciting as learning 10!
Move through one list, column by column or row by row, highlighting the words they know right away and leaving the ones they don't. Once you are finished the list, or get to 10 that they don't know (Whichever comes first), have your child write down those 10 words on that piece of paper you had nearby. Any more than 10 and you risk them losing confidence and once again, we don't want that!
Those 10 words will become your focus for the activities I listed above. Write them out clearly on index cards for practice. You can hole punch the corner of each card and put them on a big key ring for handy storage! If you have less than 10 words left on the page, move on to the next list and stop once you are at 10 words to work on.
In 3-4 weeks, or sooner if you've been practicing a lot, re-test using a different colour highlighter. Your child will light up when they see the new highlighted marks on the page, showing their progress very clearly! It will motivate them to continue practicing and learning new words.
Mastering sight words is a fundamental component of building reading fluency and I hope that this gave you some insight on how to do this with your young reader at home!
As always, please reach out if you need support.