This is a guest blog post series authored by Paula Dugger, M. Ed. Paula is an educational consultant who has previously served as a Reading Recovery Teacher/Teacher Leader, first grade teacher, Title I and high school reading teacher, and a Reading Coordinator.
Do you remember having to learn sight words as a child by using flashcards? My parents taught me to recognize many words by sight with flashcards, and I did the same with my daughters, who now also use flashcards and activities to help their little ones. Teaching sight words is a critical component of learning to read, not only because of the words' frequent use but also because many are not easily decoded or illustrated.
This post will provide examples of low-prep activities to help young readers learn sight words. You can also download published lists of sight words for grades K–2, such as the Dolch Sight Word List. To begin, let's look at some fascinating facts about sight words:
- The most commonly used English sight word list is the Dolch Sight Word list developed by William Edward Dolch in the 1930s–1940s. The list contains a total of 220 sight words.
- Ten words make up 25% of all words in printed material.
- Twenty-five words make up about 33% of all printed material.
- One hundred words make up over 50% of all printed materials.
Imagine the implications of learning a hundred words by sight—in most texts, readers would be able to recognize and understand up to 50% of the words they encounter without using decoding skills. This allows them to focus more on meaning and on decoding less familiar words.
Teaching sight words is all about memorization and recognition. It's not about "sounding out" words. Even though some sight words are decodable, they appear so frequently in print that learning them by sight is much more efficient. Some sight words, however, have irregular spellings that do not support the regular sound-letter correspondences (e.g., of, who, have, sure), and learning to recognize them by sight is very important.
Beginning Sight Word Activities for K–1 Students
Using cards with one sight word written on each is an easy and effective way to help children begin recognizing certain words. The U.S. Department of Education (2010), reports that most words require several exposures before they fully grasped. Researchers estimate that it can take seventeen or more sessions for a new word to be understood. Repeated exposure is essential, and flashcards provide repetition and are easily utilized in the home. These exposures will be most effective if they appear over an extended period.
Start with 2–3 words when introducing very young children to the idea of learning to read/recognize words by sight. Children must learn the task with strong teacher support and gradually releasing that support until the child requires no help.
- Begin with 2–3 words and prepare a card (index cards are great) for each. Be careful to print or type each word in lower-case letters (unless the word is a proper noun such as a name or "I").
- Show and say one word at a time. Then ask students to repeat the word. You may want to do this several times, before going on to other words. (Strong support)
- Next, place the cards face-up on the table and ask the child(ren) to locate one of the specific words you say. (Some support)
- Find a readable text that features the words taught. Before reading, ask the child(ren) to locate the word(s) in the book by framing each word with two fingers. (Some support)
- Finally, ask the child(ren) to read each card aloud. (No support)
You may want to repeat the above activity until the word is fully understood. Eventually, you will ask students to read the word. Add a new word or two to the group (using the same procedure above for new words) once you feel students are ready to take on more words. Be sure to keep all previous words in the mix and continually refer back to them for reinforcement.
Find a wall space or bulletin to create a word wall. Begin by creating a space for words listed under a letter of the alphabet. After introducing each sight word, place them on the wall for students to see. Call on students at random, or use volunteers to read words throughout the day to reinforce learning. You can see an example of a word wall to the left.
Magnetic Letters to Support Writing
Using magnetic letters to make words is another activity to support sight word recognition in writing. Place the letters of sight words in a baggie and ask students to make words that you say aloud with the letters provided. Have them copy or write the words for additional practice. For additional ideas with magnetic letters, see my previous blog posts: 1. Using Magnetic Letters to Make Words, Part 1. 2. Using Magnetic Letter to Make Words, Part 2.
Once students have acquired ten or more sight words, create a memory game similar to the Concentration game that many of us played as children. Prepare a set of 10–15 pairs of cards (just like the flashcards already being used) with a sight word listed on each card. Each sight word will be on two cards. All cards will be placed face down in rows and columns. Each player will take turns, flipping over two cards at a time to find a pair. If a player finds a pair, then they get to continue turning over two cards at a time until the cards do not match. The game's objective is for players to acquire as many pairs of sight words before the game ends as they can. The player holding the most pairs wins. More words can be added and removed from time to time as new words are introduced or need more exposure. I would suggest 2–4 players for this game.
Great Books for Sight Words
Monkey Walk (Level C/3), is a delightful new book from the Joy Cowley Early Birds series. The book has sixty-one words out of which ten pre-K and kindergarten sight words are used collectively fifty-two times, representing a little over 85% of the book's words. This book is an excellent tool for reading or locating these specific sight words if you are teaching any or all of these words.
Little Fish (Level E/7) is also a book from the Joy Cowley Early Bird series. There are forty-five words in this first-grade book, and eleven words are on the Pre-K–1 Dolch sight word lists. These eleven sight words are used collectively twenty-six times and makeup 58% of the word count. When students are allowed to locate words within a story while reading is a great way to reinforce new and previously introduced sight words.
A characteristic of fluent reading is fast word recognition focused on comprehending the text, not decoding words. The best way to help students acquire quick word identification is to use sight words activities that teach readers how to automatically recognize a word without having to stop and "sound out" the word or letters in the word. Using texts like the Joy Cowley First Readers will help reinforce the learning of sight words.
I hope you will continue to visit the Hameray blog for more ideas to help your students' literacy needs.
Paula Dugger has a B.S, M.Ed., and Reading Specialist Certification from The University of Texas at Austin and Reading Recovery training through Texas Woman’s University. A former first grade teacher, reading coordinator and Reading Recovery Teacher Leader, Paula has served as an adjunct professor at Texas Woman’s University and Dallas Baptist University teaching reading classes for current and future teachers. She also does educational consulting and training through Dugger Educational Consulting, LLC, in addition to writing blogs and early literacy books for Hameray. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Paula and her husband Neil have two married daughters and are grandparents to Carter, Blake, and Faye. She raises registered Texas Longhorns on the weekends. Her longhorn cattle are featured in her first book published by Hameray Publishing group, Longhorns. She has authored six additional titles in the Kaleidoscope Collection—Ben & Ruby, Buttons, Cowboy, Dinner, Going Up and Down, and Round, Not Round.