My hope is that this article will help you avoid problems that can come from getting your preschooler to memorize lots of words too early in the journey to reading.
No doubt you’ve come across sight words lists when looking for alphabet activities Pinterest to help your preschooler get ready for reading.
The term "sight words" is often used interchangeably with "high-frequency words".
One of the biggest mistakes is getting young children to memorize lists of sight words before they understand that words are made up of speech sounds in a row.
Advocates of teaching sight words say that the most common words used in English should be memorized so they can be recognized on sight to improve reading fluency and comprehension.
The idea is that children who can recognize these common English words at a glance can then concentrate on understanding what they have read instead of having to stop and decode each word.
It used to be thought that reading is a visual memory process. This “whole word” or “whole language” approach assumed that if children see words often enough, those words will be stored in the memory as visual images.
This is why some beginning reader books feature predictable and repetitive sentences with lots of high-frequency words and pictures to provide context and help children guess the right word.
A good example is the Dick and Jane series, or levelled reader books with text like “Feet are neat! They can jump. They can ride.”
Current research from cognitive scientists and neuroscientists indicates that the best way to teach children to read is through phonics. That means explicit instruction of the code between speech sounds and written symbols.
Specifically addressing the question of sight words vs phonics, Stanford Professor Bruce McCandliss found that beginning readers who focus on letter-sound relationships increase activity in the area of their brains best wired for reading compared with memorizing whole words.
Reading programs that put phonics first discourage guessing at words or relying on pictures for context. Children practice reading skills by sounding out decodable text using existing knowledge of the phonetic code.
High-frequency words that are tricky or cannot be decoded are taught as they are encountered.
All words eventually become “sight words” for a skilled reader. Although it seems as if skilled readers have memorized words because they recognize words automatically, that’s just because decoding happens so fast!
See for yourself how quickly you can read words that you’ve never seen before such as “thab” or “porlain”. It’s because these words have letter sequences that follow regular phonetic rules.
Although there IS a time to invite your child to memorize a few high-frequency words to improve reading fluency, you can create problems if you encourage your preschooler to memorize lots of words too early in the journey to reading.
First, it’s a waste of time and energy to focus on getting your preschooler or kindergartener to memorize words that can be easily decoded using knowledge of the phonetic code.
Two common sight words lists are the Fry sight word list and the Dolch sight word list. At first glance, you might think that many words on these sight words lists are not decodable. But this simply isn’t true!
If you look at the pre-primary and primary Dolch words and the first 100 Fry words for Kindergarten, you’ll see that many of these words can be easily sounded out and read by a child with a knowledge of the sound-letter associations for the alphabet letters (i.e., and, a, in, it, on, at, had, but, not, can, him, am, its, did, get, up, big, red, jump, help, run, will, yes, went, well, ran, must).
Some words are tricky because they include double letter sounds that a child may not have learned yet. However, once a child learns specific phonograms including or, oo, ow, ee, ue, ay, a_e, th, ou, i_e, a_e, ea, ew, er, wh, ir, then even more sight words from the Dolch and Fry word lists can also be easily decoded using phonics knowledge (i.e., for, look, down, see, blue, away, make, play, three, that, with, out, like, this, now, came, ride, good, brown, eat, new, soon, our, ate, say, under, or, when, time, number, way, than, been, first, made, white).
A child who has memorized 100 words can only “read” 100 words. A child who has learned the sound-letter correspondences for the alphabet and several two-letter phonograms can read hundreds of words!
Instead of looking for strategies to make sight words stick in your child’s memory, you can just teach your child how to READ them using phonics.
A problem with teaching sight words that are actually decodable is that children can begin to think that the English language doesn’t make sense, and they might get in the habit of guessing at words instead of looking for patterns.
This is a real concern when young preschoolers are introduced to sight words before they have started developing phonemic awareness and understand that words are made up of individual sounds in a row.
Guessing at words is common among children who have been taught using the whole word approach. Instead of paying attention to each phonogram (sound-letter correspondences) in an unknown word and sounding it out, they try to figure out the word based on clues from the initial letter, the shape of the word and accompanying pictures. They may even have been told to skip words they don’t know!
An example is a child who says “horse” when the word is “house” because he or she is relying on how the word looks instead of noticing the ou and trying to decode the word sound by sound.
In contrast, learning phonics is all about learning the patterns of sound-letter correspondences to build the reading network in the brain.
Remember, teaching children to sound out “l-oo-k” sparks more optimal brain wiring than getting them to memorize the word “look”.
Plus, a child who knows the oo phonogram can easily decode other words with the same phonogram such as book, took, shook, foot, hook, wood, cook and wool.
It’s not a question of phonics OR sight words when it comes to helping your child learn to read!
It’s a matter of making sure that your child has a solid understanding of phonics BEFORE asking your child to memorize whole words.
The ideal time to teach sight words is AFTER your child has already begun using existing phonics knowledge to sound out words and is well on the way to developing strong decoding skills.
At this stage, your child understands that words are made up of sounds in a row and understands that a letter or combination of letters represents an individual speech sound.
Now that your child has a solid phonetic base, it’s OK to encourage your child to memorize some high frequency words to boost reading fluency.
You might also be wondering how many sight words your kindergartener should know, and which sight words to teach.
To find out exactly how many sight words your child needs to know, find some decodable readers that you plan to use with your child and see which tricky high-frequency words they include (e.g., the, you, is, I, said, are, there).
When you choose to focus on phonics first and then teach tricky high-frequency words as they are encountered, you’ll find that your list is much shorter than those Dolch and Fry “sight words” lists that you’ll find on Pinterest. No more feeling pressured to get your child to memorize hundreds of words!
If you’re looking for a reading program that doesn’t require your child to memorize hundreds of words, check out The Playful Path to Reading™. It takes the guesswork out of helping your child learn phonics using fun, hands-on activities. You can watch my FREE CLASS if you first want to learn more about my gentle, child-led approach to teaching reading at home.