How to Teach Sight Words to Struggling Readers

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What are sight words?

Sight words are said to be words that are frequently used in written English and are often challenging to sound out. 

Let’s look at the Dolch sight word list for kindergarten as an example. It includes words such as at and on. If the child knows the sound for each of the letters in at and on, they should be able to sound out both words and many more like them.
Do you see a problem here?

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What is wrong with the current approach in teaching sight words?

The idea of teaching sight words, or whole words that students are expected to memorize by sight, has been a common approach in early reading. However, here are a couple of reasons why this approach is not the best method to use when teaching children how to read.

1. Lacks teaching foundational skills 
Asking a young child to memorize lists of sight words does not teach them the foundational skills needed to read, such as phonemic awareness and phonics. Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate individual sounds in words, while phonics is the understanding that letters represent sounds. These are skills needed for children to be able to decode words and read fluently, which is not achieved through the memorization of individual words.

2. It’s overwhelming!
The memorization of sight words can be overwhelming for students, as there are thousands of words in the English language. Children may become frustrated when they encounter a word they don’t know, as they have not been taught the skills to sound it out and decode it. This can lead to a lack of confidence in reading and a disinterest in learning.
Have you noticed this happening with your child?

Eventually, all words become sight words – but we have to start with a strong foundation!

So what is a better way of teaching sight words to struggling readers?

1. Teach sight words within a phonics pattern.

First, identify the words that you want to teach. For example, if you are focusing on the word the, you can introduce the long e sound by showing examples of other words that follow this sound pattern such as me, he, be, and we. Next, introduce the phonics pattern that the sight words are a part of. Your child should know the sounds for the consonants and vowels before asking them to read words.
Sample script:

In these words, the vowel spells its name. Read with me: me, he, be, we (Point to each word as you read it aloud.)
In this word, (point to the), the letters <th> spell /th/ and e spells /eee/ or /uh/. You can say the or thu.






Calling these words red words or tricky words can attach negative connotations. Keep it simple and positive!

2. Tell students to sound out the parts they know.

Can you sound out the so called “sight words”? Yes! Let’s take the words to and do. If your child knows the sounds for the letters <t and d>, they can sound out to and do. You’ll explain the letter sound correspondences first.
Sample script:
In this word, (point to to), o spells /oo/. Read with me, tooo (extend the final sound).
This word works the same, o spells /oo/. 
Read with me, dooo (extend the final sound).



3. Practice with games and activities.

Practice is important for learning a new skill. When we learn a new skill, our brain creates new neural connections, but these connections are weak and easily disrupted. Through practice, we activate these connections repeatedly, making them stronger and more resistant to interference. When learning to read, practice helps us to identify and correct errors, allowing children to work on accurate reading. It also helps to build confidence in their ability to read.
Keep the game simple. Draw out a tic tac toe game on a sheet of paper and fill it in with words.

4. Spell them out.

Practicing spelling helps with reading because spelling and reading skills are closely related. When a person learns how to spell words, they become more familiar with the letter-sound relationships in words. Spelling requires a child to pay close attention to the details of each word, such as the order of the letters and the correct use of vowels and consonants.
Follow this simple spelling routine for each of the words you are teaching.

Sample script:
Say to. — Child repeats the word.
Tell me the sounds in to. — Child says, /t/ /oo/.
Write it. — Child writes the word on their paper.
Spell it out loud. — Child spells the word out loud. 
Read it. — Child reads the word.

5. Read words in phrases and sentences.

Practice reading the words in context: Once students have learned the focus sight words, provide opportunities for them to practice reading them in context. You might use a decodable text that includes the phonics pattern and the focus sight words. You can easily create your own phrases and sentences.
Here are sample phrases to practice reading the. At this point, the child should be reading 3-letter short-vowel words such as cat, mat, cup, and pup.

the cat

the mat

the cup

the pup

Be sure to review and reinforce regularly. Patience and practice!