by Margo Edwards, Director of Content Development for SightWords.com, a free resource for child literacy
If you are a parent of a Pre-K to 3rd grader, you have probably heard something from your child’s teacher about “practicing sight words” at home. The teacher may or may not have though to explain to you what sight words are. So, what are they?
Sight words are words that should be memorized to help a child learn to read and write. Being able to recognize such words quickly—by sight—builds a child’s speed and fluency in reading. Knowing common words by sight makes reading easier and faster, because the reader does not need to stop to try and sound out each individual word, letter by letter. When a child struggles to decode the individual words in a sentence, they don’t have any brainpower left over to absorb what the sentence is about.
Sight words fall into two categories, Frequently Used Words and Non-Phonetic Words. Frequently Used Words are those that occur most often in the English language, such as it, can, and will. Memorizing these words makes reading much easier and smoother, because the child already recognizes most of the words on the page and can then concentrate their efforts on the few unfamiliar words. For example, knowing just the words in the Dolch Sight Words List would enable you to read about 50% of a newspaper or 80% of the words in a typical children’s book.
Non-Phonetic Words are words that cannot be decoded phonetically, such as buy, talk, or come. Sight words instruction focuses on the phonetically irregular words that also show up very frequently in printed language. Memorizing such words with atypical spellings and pronunciations teaches not only these words but also helps the reader recognize similar non-phonetic words, such as guy, walk, or some.
There are multiple sight words lists out there, and your child’s teacher has probably selected a particular one to work from. The Dolch list, consisting of 315 words is the most commonly used. It was developed in the 1930s-40s by Dr. Edward William Dolch, who studied the most frequently occurring words in children’s books of that era. The Fry sight words list, developed by Dr. Edward Fry, is also popular. It is more modern (it was updated in 1980) and more extensive. It is comprised of the most common 1,000 words in reading materials used in Grades 3 through 9.
So how does a parent go about “practicing sight words” with their child? It does not have to be an ordeal of boring drills, worksheets, and tears. The key to sight words instruction is simple repetition, and this can be accomplished with just a few minutes of flashcards followed by some fun game time. Use flashcards to introduce new words, reading, spelling out, and saying each word aloud several times so it can really sink into your child’s brain.
Follow that up with about 20 minutes of a game that incorporates the same words; this will reinforce the lesson with more repetition and really drive those words into the kid’s long-term memory. There are sight words versions of a lot of classic games, such as Bingo, Go Fish, Memory, and Candy Land. You can further reinforce the sight words instruction by pointing out sight words to your child in signs, books, etc. They really are everywhere!
Hopefully this removes some of the mystery of sight words for you. Just ask your child’s teacher which words the class is working on, and if there are any your kid is struggling with. It’s not rocket science; just a few minutes a day can help your child along the road to reading fluency!