For struggling readers, learning sight words can be challenging. You may have reviewed “there, were, was…etc.” across several lessons only to realize that your student still doesn’t recognize them. It appears that your student is blind to sight words. You’re at a loss. You’ve heard that sight words allow kids to start reading books. Yet, you’re not sure how to make them stick.
A summary of research based strategies for teaching sight words:
-Teach 2-4 new sight words at a time. Toss aside those 100 word lists. Pick the first 2-4 most common sight words. Teach only these 2-4 words to your student. Once he masters 75% of the words, introduce more. This is called incremental learning. You’re student starts with a very small pile of sight words and gradually learns more.
Use flashcards. Mix them up before every lesson. Flashcards have a bad rep, but they are very effective. They allow you to quickly vary the order of the words. Thus, don’t put your sight words on a ring. This will take away the advantage of flashcards. Simply use index cards and place a rubber band around them for storage. When you get them out, shuffle them. With this method, your student will not be able to predict which word comes next.
Have your student spell the sight words out loud
Sight words break the phonetic code. Thus, your student needs to memorize how to spell sight words. To learn to spell them, your student needs to spell each sight word out loud. Here’s an example: 1) show the “would” flashcard, 2) have the student read would 3) lastly, the student says the letter names in order w-o-u-l-d.
Also, during spelling time, have your student write sight words. In this separate spelling activity (which usually occurs at the end of the lesson), do not use flashcards at all. Simply see if your student can accurately recall the sight word spelling from memory. If he can’t recall the spelling from memory, then let him glance at the sight word flashcard. At this point, the spelling might be in his working memory. See if he can write it then.
Review challenging words
In your lesson, you should have words your student knows and words he’s working on knowing. This will help your student feel successful. Let’s say your student can’t yet read 6 words and knows how to read 14 words. Set aside the 6 he’s struggling with. Review these words 1) at the end of reviewing all the sight word flashcards and 2) later in the lesson (I like to review the challenging sight words during spelling time at the end).
Does the first sound help the student?
Usually, the first sound in sight words is regular. Thus, the first sound can help the student recall the word. For example, the, from, there, were, was, some, many, would, could, people, build, together, learn, what, come… (and so many more) all start with a regular sound. Thus, if you want to use research based strategies for teaching sight words, help your student use their phonics knowledge. If your student doesn’t know the word, don’t give them the word right away. Instead, say “What’s the first sound?” If he discovers the first sound in people is /p/, he might be able to recognize people.
Don’t let your sight word flashcard pile get too big
Once your sight word flashcard pile reaches 20 words, start taking words out. Do not let your pile exceed 20 words. If you have a student with a memory deficit, you can let your pile reach 25 words. However, at this point, take words out. You do not want sight word review to take up too much instructional time. Most of your lesson should focus on phonics.
Teach using systematic phonics instruction
Some kids simply will not be able to read sight words until they learn phonics. For example, some kids will not be able to read “they” until they learn the /th/ spelling-sound correlation. Although sight words break the phonetic code, almost all of them contain at least one regular pattern. Thus, teach systematic phonics to help your child crack sight words.
Reading is not a psycho-linguistic guessing game. Quite a lot of English is phonetically regular. According to Louisa Moats, 96% of English words follow at least one phonics rule. 50% of English words strictly follow sound-symbol correlations–these words don’t break any rules. Another 36% of English words “can be spelled accurately except for one sound.” (from English Gets a Bad Rap, retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/english-gets-bad-rap).
Sight word activities can be a fun, effective addition
Be sure to use flashcards and spelling activities in the manner described above. However, sight word activities can be a fun and effective addition to instruction. You can have your student read and spell the sight words in the following coloring activities: sunflowers, apple tree, dump truck. In addition you can create a sight word train. For each word your student reads and spells, he gets to add a sight word to the train cars.
You can also create a sight word mailbox. Your student will have fun collecting the mail during sight word time. Sight word activities can help cement the words in memory.
If you’re interested in teaching using research-based phonics, check out our systematic phonics books.