Could you read those sentences easily without having to sound out the words? That's because they are all sight words for you. Confused? Let's get started. The first thing you need to know is those words you think of as "sight words" are really "high frequency words. So...
What are high frequency words?
High frequency words are words we frequently see in reading. Makes sense, right? These are words like of, the, is, and was. These words are so common in reading that word lists have been created based on their frequency. The most common high frequency word lists are Dolch and Fry. Do these names sound familiar? Maybe they were at the top of a paper sent home or you found it googling...Fry's first 100 words make up 50% of what we read. These have been commonly referred to as "sight words." But do you want to know a secret? They're not!
What are sight words?
A sight word is a word that can be read automatically and effortlessly without having to be sounded out. These are words that are stored in long term memory. If you can read all of these words, that means they have been stored in your sight word vocabulary. A good way to think of it is that every word wants to be a sight word when it grows up.
Can high frequency words be sounded out?
Yes, they can! Many are completely decodable (like "and" or "can.") Some are not completely decodable YET but will be when the phonics skill is learned (like "about" or "like." These words are completely decodable once a child has learned /ow/ and the cvcE spelling pattern.)
Should our kids memorize high frequency words that can't be decoded yet?
No! The science of reading (an interdisciplinary decades long body of research that tells us how the brain learns to read) tells us that our brain doesn't store words as pictures (whole words) but by connecting sounds to symbols (sound spelling).
But Aoife, if my kid's not memorizing words, how do we teach words with sound spellings they haven't learned yet?
Nearly every high frequency word can be taught through effective phonics instruction. The ultimate goal is for high frequency words to become sight words. Every word wants to become a sight word! This is a little fancy teacher talk, but I'm going to type it anyway....When a word becomes a sight word, it is stored in long term memory for easy retrieval, and once it's there, it's there forever.
But first. Why not just memorize? It seems easier...
Maybe that's what you've been told, but it's not a permanent solution. In the short term, it might seem quicker, but in the long run, it will cause your kids to struggle with reading. That's because rote memorization relies on remembering words using visual cues often using the shape of a word. Memorizing words only focuses on letters, not the sounds. It does nothing to connect the sounds to the symbols (think of this as a broken chain). If your child could read a certain word once or twice when reading but then struggles with it, it has not be stored in long term memory yet; it's been memorized. So how do we teach them? Word mapping!
What is word mapping?
Word mapping connects sounds to symbols both on the page and in the brain. (Fancy teacher talk: the words are orthographically mapped in the brain.) It shows kids how their knowledge of phonograms (single or multiletter symbols) connects to their knowledge of phonemes (sounds). This is sometimes called phoneme-grapheme mapping using sound boxes or Elkonin boxes. It's all the same thing. (Grapheme is another word for phonogram.)
How do we teach our kids to map words? I'll show you an easy way in 5 simple steps...
Let me give you an example using a whiteboard and dry erase member. We'll use the word "said."
1. Say the word. "Said."
2. Use the word in a sentence. For example, "Mom said to take off your shoes."
3. How many sounds do you hear in that word "said"? /s/ - /e/ - /d/. Three! (I count the sounds starting with my thumb.) Draw three lines on the whiteboard, one for each sound. Bonus: use manipulatives (play dough, blocks, erasers, anything you have lying around) to count the sounds to make it multisensory.
4. What's the first sound you hear? /s/ How do you spell /s/? The reader writes s on the first line. What's the last sound you hear? /d/ How do you spell /d? The reader writes d on the last line.
5. Ready for the tricky part? What's the middle sound you hear? Your child will probably say /e/ (short e), and that's okay! In fact that's what they should say. That tells you that they have good letter-sound knowledge. This is when you tell them, "That's right! That's how we usually spell short e, but in this word, there's a tricky part. In this word we're going to spell that sound with an 'ai.' Let's put a heart over it so we remember it."
Why heart words?
This is often referred to as the heart word method. Need a visual? I like how Really Great Reading explains how to map words using Heart Word Magic, which you can watch here. By using the heart word method, your child can see that there's only one tricky part they need to learn by heart. It makes teaching AND learning easier. Pretty sweet, right?!
Still have questions? Want to know practical uses of applying this knowledge and how to use it to help your child with reading at home?
E-mail me at email@example.com and come to my Q & A Facebook LIVE on Friday at 9:00 am PST here. See you there, and until next week, happy reading!