When, Where, And Why Do Sight Words Matter?

Sight words. I’ve had different experiences and thoughts around sight words over the 16 years that I’ve taught Kindergarten to Grade 2. I used to always introduce The Popcorn Word Song early in the year, and even ran some guided reading groups over the use of this song. Last year, my teaching partner, Paula, and I talked a lot about how we would approach the instruction of sight words. If I started to look critically at my past practices, I would note that while many children started to recognize the sight words out of context (i.e., in the song and on the word wall), they were not reading these sight words correctly in context. Nor were they spelling them correctly. Why? It was this question, and the conversation that Paula and I had around it, which changed our approach to sight word instruction.

We now introduce sight words as part of authentic reading and writing opportunities. Having students write notes to us, and writing back to them, have been great ways to do this. Paula and I are very deliberate in our word choices. We know which children are learning to recognize some very beginning sight words (e.g., I, a, the), and which children are ready for more challenging words (e.g., here, there, because). We vary our notes based on our students, and we focus on different words depending on them.

Many students still spell sight words using letter-sounds, which becomes a problem for a word such as “of” or “my.” This is where I think that knowing your students is critical. When children are ready to move to more conventional spelling, and are even starting to do more conventional writing on their own, we may look at editing specific sight words. This is what I did in the example below in the case of the word “of.” The fact that this child could read the word correctly, had me getting her to look for when to also write it correctly.

This kind of editing makes its way into other types of writing experiences, such as in the examples below when this child is writing multiple sentences and even a story in one case. Looking back at some specific word endings, as well as the spelling of certain words, seems appropriate for her considering what she is sharing.

Now that many of our students are connecting oral sounds to text in various ways — in both JK and SK — we’ve changed our morning transitional activity to align with this growth. We now try a couple of different ways to get students using sounds to write words, exchanging vowel sounds, consonants, consonant blends, and digraphs to spell and read different words, and embedding sight words as part of this writing to improve reading fluency.

As we’re well into April/May/June — the three months that often seem to combine themselves in education due to the speed at which they come and go — Paula and I have spent a lot of time looking at our students. We’re really focused on our SK children, as they move into Grade 1, and considering where they are in terms of their reading and writing skills. Fifty-percent of our SK students are well above the Board benchmark in reading. As a class of readers and writers, these are some of the strongest students that we’ve ever had moving into Grade 1.

Compared to even previous years, this year we’ve spent the least amount of time in isolation focusing on sight words, but our students are reading even more of them. We know that some children are exposed to these words through flashcards and games at home. This has built confidence for some kids, and a bigger sight word vocabulary, but some of these same children are more reluctant to use letter-sounds to decode unfamiliar words in print. Does working with letter-sounds first help increase a willingness to use them more independently in different contexts? On Thursday afternoon, Paula and I are out at a Board PD session that’s going to focus a lot on sight word knowledge. We’re curious to hear what other educators do and what they notice. We wonder if learning sight words in context increases children’s ability to read and use them with ease, while still using other decoding strategies to figure out unfamiliar words. Is timing key when it comes to sight word acquisition? Paula and I would love to say that our observations from this year make our sight word approach one worth continuing to explore, but knowing that at least some children are playing with sight words in a different way at home, is a combined approach necessaryCould the connection between school and home be what’s key here? We know that Thursday’s PD session will bring opportunities to question and to reflect, but in the meantime, we’d also like to hear more about your approach. What role do sight words play in your writing and reading program, and what have you noticed about this role and the connection to how students view themselves as writers and readers? Please continue to push our thinking as we continue to push our own.


2 thoughts on “When, Where, And Why Do Sight Words Matter?

  1. Great ideas here! I’ve always believed context was key, & learning the words in isolation wouldn’t really help. Then my son came along. He’s got a speech delay, so sounding out many words has not been a good strategy for him. He doesn’t make the sounds the same way the rest of us do, so stretching out a word won’t help him read or spell it. He’s gradually getting better as he nears the end of grade 1. I have done so much reading with both of my kids at home! But for him there has been more emphasis on building sight word vocabulary because I know he needs a larger bank of words he can pull from memory when writing and reading.

    • Thanks for your comment, Lisa! You addressed something here that my post did not: the exceptions to the rule. I started teaching by working with kids with major speech and language needs, and a stronger sight vocabulary plus colour-coded word families made a big difference for them. These past couple of years, we built up this sight vocabulary for a couple of our kids with this profile through regular reading of various pattern stories. We really tried to look at the sight words in these stories, and incorporated more of them into our morning transitional routine, so that these students would see them more often. This seemed to help them learn the words. I know that one of the parents did some sight word flash cards and games at home, and this also helped her son. You make me think again about the importance of knowing our learners, and being willing to modify approaches when one is not working for them. Thanks Lisa!


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