Pulling The Plug On Popcorn Words: What Do You Do?

In September, I will be starting my 18th year of teaching. Wow! I’ve changed many of my practices over the years. One of my most recent changes though is one that has me thinking the most. It’s my approach to teaching sight words.

Many Kindergarten and Grade 1 educators probably have an opinion on how to best support children in quickly recalling sight words. For years, I was an advocate of “popcorn words.” I even taught The Popcorn Song to the tune of Mary Had A Little Lamb. One of my most embarrassing moments as a teacher happened due to popcorn words, and that stray kernel of popcorn, which ended up lodged in my ear. 🙂 In the past couple of years though, the updated Kindergarten Program Document had me wondering about the value in teaching these words out of context. My teaching partner, Paula, and I had many discussions about this, and we decided on a different approach. 

A couple of years ago, we figured that children tend to learn these words as they’re exposed to them more in books. After reading them again and again, they do so automatically, and then slowly, these words make it into their writing. We thought that this might be more of a developmental approach, so instead of highlighting the words for everyone, we just explored these words as kids came across them in texts. While this worked to a degree, when I completed the D.R.A. at the end of the school year, I noticed that it was the slowing down and attempting to sound out sight words, which impacted on some children getting to even higher reading levels. While most children met year-end, grade level expectations, I wondered if a better sight word knowledge would have led to even greater success. But then again, is a word song, a word wall, and flash cards the way to go?

Paula and I talked about these concerns. We still didn’t think that going back to The Popcorn Song and popcorn word games were the answer, but we wondered what more was possible. Was it a matter of being even more deliberate in our introduction and review of these grade appropriate sight words? For the past couple of years, we really worked at linking reading and writing, and having children read back to us what they wrote. This past year, we extended this thinking even more, and had children blend sounds to also read what other children wrote. Students started to see themselves as even more capable readers and writers, when they knew that what they wrote was accessible to their peers, and what their peers wrote, was accessible to them. 

I was so inspired by what Tomek, Trinity, and Brayden did, that I invited two more students to join me out at this graffiti wall on my prep today. They started by reading the words together. Milla finished the sentence in her own. Then they thought about what to write. I tried to get them to think about growth in learning. Milla really wanted to focus on her writing growth. She remembered what I showed her from her time in JK. As we spoke more, she added more details to her work. We even looked at the silent W in “write.” Her ability to self-reflect here almost brought me to tears. ❤️❤️❤️ When we look at our @hwdsb goal, this work aligns with that! SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #ctinquiry #teachersofinstagram

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But we knew that students still needed more opportunities to work with sight words. Over the year, many children enjoyed writing us notes to ask for things or to express their feelings. At first, we either read the notes or had the students read them to us. Then we thought of a new idea: we began writing the students back! We really tried to think carefully about the words that we included in these responses:

  • varying the difficulty depending on the child.
  • choosing words which students could sound out.
  • ensuring that many sight words were part of our notes.

We extended this even more by trying to embed both educator and student writing within different play opportunities. It was amazing what happened when we brought some speech bubbles over to the Lego table and into the building area. Sometimes just having one of us start the writing led to children continuing it. 

While we didn’t work on teaching specific sight words in isolation, seeing, experiencing, reading, and writing these words in different play situations helped with greater recall of them. Before long, students were reading more sight words than they had in the past, and my reading assessment concerns from the year before were no longer an issue. 

I share all of this because in the end, sight words were taught exclusively in context, without even the introduction of a word wall. We spoke with our reading specialist about this, and she came up with the idea of adding a ring of sight words to our writing table. While we didn’t focus on them, the words were there if students wanted to access them for their writing. Most did not, and those that did, tended to just copy the words instead of focusing on what they said. This was something that I noticed a lot with the “popcorn words,” and was a big reason why I was happy to try another approach. 

I keep thinking about what a speech pathologist taught me a few years ago. Her fear was that if children see and learn conventional spelling before playing with letter-sounds, they will not use these sounds in their writing or to assist them in reading. She also felt that if we were going to have a word wall, we should look at adding digraphs as separate on the wall, so that the focus was on the letter-sounds instead of the names. To me, this always seemed to extend the wall even more, and I wondered how much children would use this resource to assist with reading and writing. Is it just the thing to do, or is it something that would truly make a difference for them? Word walls though have been around — and popular — since I started teaching, and while I absolutely support the approach that we’ve taken these past few years, I wonder if there’s something that I’m missing here. If we’re using word walls, why are we doing so, and if we’re not, what might be any potential drawbacks for kids? Could the same questions be applied to teaching sight words in isolation? Before another school year begins, I’d like to open up the conversation that may cause some heated debates among primary educators, but I think is worth thinking and talking about. 


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