Ask Reading Kingdom

Do you think the concept of sight words is useful in teaching children to read?


Although the “teaching of sight words” is a commonly used term, in actual fact, there is almost no real teaching of sight words. While traditional phonics instruction on non-sight words occupies lots of time and effort, sight words are basically just shown—not taught. Typically a flash card containing the word is held up (e.g., “this”) and the child is told its “name.” The expectation is that the child will be able to identify the word by sight when it appears later on. Basically, without being offered any guidance or structure, the children are somehow expected to figure out what needs to be done to learn the word. As often happens, some children can do this—but many cannot, leaving those children in a position of failure. If these practices were changed and curriculum designers could come up with effective teaching practices for sight words, then there would be value in teaching those words. That indeed is one of the key features of the Reading Kingdom. The value of teaching these words cannot be overstated. They are typically the most common words in the language (e.g., the, of, you, when, etc.) and their mastery enhances reading skill. Unfortunately, the phonics systems that dominate reading instruction do not provide children with the tools needed for that mastery.

While on this topic, it is useful to mention another aspect of sight words. Once children are effective readers, they have developed an array of complex, albeit invisible, skills which enable them to master words with one exposure—in other words, they basically learn new words by sight. The new word can be acquired in a variety of ways—the child can sound it out; an adult or a computer can “tell” the child what the word is; the child can figure out the word based on the context, etc. Whatever the process, the word is identified in a single trial. In other words, effective readers are essentially reading via sight words. So sight words –not as a process of limited teaching—but as a process of effective reading –is a critical component of literacy.

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