Sight Words: What We Fail to See

“Oh he knows some sight words, but he really can’t read.”

This is an observation often offered by both parents and teachers about young children. Contained within it is a central, albeit hidden, assumption; namely, that “sight words” represent an inferior form of reading –a form that falls short of “real reading.” Is this, in fact, the case?

This interpretation is a by-product of the instructional process — a process that is dominated by “phonics” or “sounding out.” While phonics adherents would wish every word could be sounded out (as it can be in some languages such as Italian or Spanish), English does not allow it. One of the core problems rests with a group of very common words (such as who, the, does, she, and are) that would sound quite weird if you placed a sound on each letter. Yet they are essential to the language and therefore cannot be ignored.

With “sounding out” not available, phonics programs deal with these words as “sight words.” In other words, they are not to be analyzed; rather, the reader should be able to look at them and immediately know what they are “saying.” (After decades in the field, I continue to wonder how a beginning reader is supposed to look at words like toes and does and know that one is to be sounded out and the other is not supposed to be. But that is an issue for another day.)

Because there is no method for teaching these words, they receive little instructional time. In the main, the teacher writes them on cards, holds up the cards and asks the children to say what they are. Essentially this is not teaching, but testing. In other words, in reading instruction “sight words” is a term that represents words for which there is no established method of instruction. This seems to be the source for perceiving the knowledge of “some sight words” in a negative light. It is really a reflection of the values of the teaching process rather than a reflection of a child’s abilities.

All this changes dramatically if we leave the instructional process and go to reading itself. While often not acknowledged, for effective readers, all reading is based on sight words. You look at the words and instantly recognize what they are saying. Typically, this skill is referred to as “instant word recognition.” (Though it is no different from sight words, it has a different name — probably because this version of the skill is highly valued while sight words are not.)

Instant word identification, aka sight word reading, is what you are doing now. There was probably not a single word on this page which caused you to pause and resort to the strategy of “sounding out.” Indeed, if you had to sound out even 10% of the words on this page, the process would be so onerous that you would simple abandon the process. What all this means is that sight words reflects the process of reading that all effective readers use and it is the process that makes reading smooth and feasible.

From this perspective, a key issue in teaching moves from “Let’s try not to think too much about those pesky “sight words” to “What is the best way to move a child so that he or she begins to see all words as sight words as soon as possible?”
The answer to that question involves a series of strategies—and it is not possible to cover them all here. But there is one that you can adopt that is both simple and helpful. Specifically, whenever your child asks you how to spell a word,

1. do not offer the typical verbal response where you label the letters (e.g., for catch, you do NOT say see, ay, tee, etc.) Instead, you write the word on a piece of paper

2. show the paper to your child, say “Look at this.” Then cover the word so that it is out of view.

3. with the word covered, you ask your child to write the word.

4. if your child makes an error in writing the word, you immediately stop him or her, completely blacken out whatever has been written and repeat the process (of showing, then hiding the word).

5. there is a variant of the technique that encourages greater mental imaging of words. In it, the model that you offer contains some missing letters. At the same time, under the incomplete model is a set of letters that contain the missing letters along with some irrelevant ones. (e.g., catch might be shown as __ a t c __ with b c e h n underneath.) To be able to write the word, the child has to mentally select the missing letters and combine them with the incomplete word.

The basic technique (of seeing a clear model, but writing only in the absence of the model) encourages a child to look carefully at the set of letters that compose a word. By repeating that process over many words, the basic visual skills for effective sight word reading fall into place, with fabulous results for effective reading.

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Marion Blank

Marion Blank

Dr. Marion Blank is a world-renowned psychologist and expert on the development of literacy and language in children as well as the creator of the “Six Skill Integrated Method” for teaching children to read. Prior to creating the Reading Kingdom online literacy program, she created and directed the Light on Literacy Program at Columbia University. She has authored dozens of peer-reviewed articles and books and developed numerous award winning teaching and assessment programs. Dr. Blank is also a recipient of the Upton Sinclair Award which honors individuals who have made a significant contribution to education.
Marion Blank