Do you remember learning to read? After a certain point, it kinda feels like a skill you’ve always had—the ability to look at symbols on a page and immediately make instant sense of them.
But reading is basically a superpower.
When your child is learning to read, it really brings this awareness home.
Suddenly, you’re reminded of just how complex and painstaking the process of learning to read actually is. Literacy skills are vital for all learning, and also extremely specialized and sophisticated.
They’re also cumulative. Early skills like learning letters and pairing them with sounds build into sounding out whole words, recognizing and reading complete sentences—on and on until reading fluency is mastered and frees up our headspace to focus on understanding what we’ve read, rather than just deciphering it.
It’s a LOT.
But, thankfully, our scientific understanding of literacy skills development has led to the creation of some tricks and shortcuts that can help this process along.
One of these strategies is the use of sight words.
But what are sight words, and why are they so important and widely used in literacy education?
This article will explore the answer to this, to help you understand why the ability to recognize some whole words by sight is a vital component of our modern literacy education curricula.
First, let’s get clear on what constitutes a sight word. Then, we’ll learn why they’re important and how they can be used to supercharge your child’s literacy skills.
What are sight words?
In a nutshell, sight words are words we want children to be able to recognize by sight.
They’re also sometimes called heart words—because children should know them by heart.
On the surface, this lesson seems to fly in the face of the painstaking, sound-by-sound literacy education provided to emergent readers.
But, there’s an important reason for this.
Because sight words are not phonetically regular.
What does that mean?
It means they don’t follow the typical rules of written language—so they can’t be read correctly using the strategy of sounding them out letter by letter.
BUT—they’re also super common in our language and show up all the time.
Sight words include frequently used words like—
Just pretend you’re learning to read and try sounding them out—it doesn't work.
The technical name for these words is irregular words, or phonetically irregular words.
These terms highlight the fact that they don’t follow the classic letter-sound correspondence most words do, allowing them to be accurately sounded out by children learning to read.
So, what’s a language-learning kiddo to do when they run across these words?
You guessed it—learn to recognize these common, irregular words by sight when they pop up in text.
Why are sight words important in literacy education?
Learning to recognize phonetically irregular words by sight is crucial to the foundation of our literacy skills because they’re very prevalent in our written language. But, because they can’t be decoded using the sound by sound method—we need to teach kids another way to tackle them.
If your child is in kindergarten, first, or second grade, you’ve probably noticed their teacher has sent home some worksheets containing lists of these words for practice and mastery.
That’s because sight words need to be systematically introduced, practiced, and reviewed in order for your child to identify them each time they run across them in text.
Like the old saying goes—practice makes perfect.
When it comes to learning these high-frequency irregular words, it’s helpful to provide children with multiple encounters with these words, and ample opportunities to practice their recognition of these whole words both by themselves and within printed texts.
How are sight words taught?
Generally, teachers and emergent literacy educators are encouraged to address sight words beginning with the most high-frequency phonetically irregular words, then proceeding to less frequent irregular words as instruction progresses.
For an easy guide to reference the order in which sight words are often taught, The Dolch Word List is a commonly-used tool in the toolbox of many literacy educators. You can review that for yourself (and print it out) right here.
This list of 220 frequently occurring irregular words is also separated into grade levels, for a quick way to know what words your child should be learning, based on their grade level. It also shows the hierarchy of these words, based on their frequency and difficulty.
Now that you know which words your child’s teacher will likely be targeting, let’s learn about how these words are taught.
Just like with all holistic literacy instruction, sight word learning strategies rely on the axiom that the more opportunities children have to engage with and encounter sight words in their daily lives, the better!
Sight word instruction is usually taught in a way that children know exactly what they’re working on and why. This helps involve kids in their education—letting them know why learning these words is important for their reading abilities.
Teachers often begin by demonstrating that sight words are irregular, by asking students to sound them out and showing them how these words are tricky.
Specific instruction will be provided and irregular words will be introduced in a way that children have a clear understanding of what these words are and why they can’t be sounded out like most words they’ve learned up to this point.
Common strategies used to teach sight words include—
Use of magnetic letter boards
Dry erase boards to practice writing them
We all learn differently, and have unique strengths and weaknesses. Robust sight word education takes this into account, and offers students many different ways to interact with and practice their sight word recognition and use skills.
What if my child struggles with learning sight words?
If your child experiences difficulty with any aspect of their literacy learning, it can be stressful and frustrating—for both them and for you.
If you know anything about literacy—you know how complex it actually is. (And, if you’re still unsure about all the skills that combine to make us literate, check out our recent article, breaking down everything you need to know about emergent literacy).
Here’s the thing—some kids need extra, targeted instruction in order to master the necessary skills to become literate. If your child is among this number—it’s totally ok and normal.
What really matters is they GET the extra support they need in order to succeed.
This can come from you recognizing their difficulties and advocating for them. It can happen when their teacher notices they could benefit from additional instruction. Or, it can result from interactions with other qualified educational professionals who spot when they’re struggling.
Because literacy skills acquisition moves at a rapid pace in the school setting, it’s vital that your child be identified as early as possible as a student in need of additional support. This way, they can start getting the extra assistance they need to master key literacy skills, before they fall behind their same-aged peers.
So, what does this extra support and instruction look like?
If you or your child’s teacher recognizes they may be struggling to learn sight words or to master any key emergent literacy skills—we’re here to help!
SLPs are qualified to assess and treat emergent literacy skills, including sight words. And our SLPs are especially skilled at addressing and targeting these important skills with children in need of extra instruction and support.
We have many ways to make sight word instruction fun and engaging for your child, as well as effective. Sight words can be taught in a variety of games and activities, and our team is skilled at tailoring their therapy plan to each individual child we serve.
We’ll ensure your child receives quality therapy that’s designed just for them, and that takes into consideration their personal preferences and needs.
We’ll also involve you in therapy, to keep you in the loop of what we’re working on and why. We’ll even include you in the fun, by providing you with info and training to continue your child’s therapy when they’re not in school.
Because when we build therapy into all aspects of your child’s daily life—we maximize its effectiveness.
We’re here to ensure your child succeeds—by offering them the extra support they need to thrive in school and in life. We’re here to support you, as well. Because we know it takes a village, and literacy skills are well worth the effort!
In addition to our awesome team of speech and language pathologists, The Loop is also super proud of our occupational therapy services, and our additional educational support service offerings. These include: learning remediation, executive function coaching, and educational consultancy and advocacy.
And don’t forget to stay in The Loop by following us on your fav social channels @TheLoopSLL. Or, reach out directly with your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. And be sure to check our website regularly for awesome new content!