Kids need to learn to read and spell sight words. These are words that break the phonetic code in some way. For example, “there” is a sight word, because although the /th/ and /r/ sounds are regular, the e_e sound is not. If we spelled “there” phonetically, we would write “thair.” There are about 100-150 of these words that are worth teaching. Some kids may benefit from a sight word strategy called chunking, a technique from Cognitive Science.
Sight Word Criticism
There has been some criticism of sight words in systematic phonics instruction circles, Reading Elephant included. People spend far too much time teaching sight words. In an hour session, sight word instruction should not exceed 10 minutes. Largely, kids need to learn how to sound out sight words, notice the sound tweak, and memorize how to spell them for writing.
Sound out sight words? Yes, every sight word has at least one phonetic component. Teach your student to recognize that phonetic component. Then, have your student try to find the sound tweak.
For example, when sounding out “there,” your student can unlock /th/ and /r/, but may not be able to get the e_e sound correct (because it’s irregular). When you tell your student to sound “there” out, she might say “theer.” Then, ask your student, “Notice the sound tweak?” She is likely to correctly match “theer” to “there.”
Until there is very clear evidence that sight word instruction is not worthwhile, I would teach them. Clear evidence would include randomized controlled trials in which both groups of kids receive the same systematic phonics instruction, but one groups receives 10 minutes of systematic sight word reading and spelling instruction. A study like this would have to teach kids to “sound out” sight words, “notice the sound tweak” and “match the word” to the correct pronunciation. No such study exists.
Chunking is a learning technique from Cognitive Science, not from the field of reading.
Struggling readers often have a hard time spelling sight words. To help them you can use chunking.
In Cognitive Science, chunking refers to grouping similar pieces of information together to aide retention. For struggling readers, their writing may be unreadable, because no one taught them how to spell sight words. An ordinary sentence, without sophisticated vocabulary, may read:
I wod like to go thar and get a donut with my frind. Then, it wud be vry fun to hed to the park and wach the ducks in the feed.
Translation: I would like to go there and get a donut with my friend. Then, it would be very fun to head to the park and watch the ducks in the field.
When the child reads over her sentence, she likely cannot read her own writing. Thus, she cannot revise. To help kids learn to spell sight words you can use chunking. This sight word strategy may help kids learn to spell some pretty difficult sight words.
Sample words to chunk together for teaching spelling…
You can teach your student to spell would, could and should together.
You can also chunk though, thought, through, thought, enough, brought, bought—all words that prove very difficult for struggling readers to spell. Teach them that all these words have the “ough” spelling.
In addition, you can chunk other and another.
Since sight words are so common, this little trick can go a long way. Suddenly, you’ll start to notice that your beginner or your struggling reader can actually read what she’s written. And that’s success!
Reading Elephant will soon release a consonant digraph series that helps beginning readers learn to read some sight words in context. Check out our printable systematic phonics books.