I taught special education for 30 years and spent most of those years teaching kindergarten, first and second grade. I loved teaching reading. In those years I saw many reading methodologies come and go. But the great thing about my school was that they respected me enough professionally that I was allowed to teach to meet the needs of my students. So whatever methodology it took to get the job done was what I was allowed to use. We were encouraged to fill our “toolboxes” with a multitude of resources to meet the needs of children rather than relying on one way of teaching. And one of the things I felt strongly about was teaching sight words. Teaching sight words in kindergarten and first grade wasn’t for every student, but if sight words were something they could master …. sight words were important and we worked to achieve mastery!
Why Teach Sight Words
Teaching students to read using sight words is an important skill. Sight words are the words you see most frequently when you’re reading, especially when you’re a beginning reader … possibly up to 75%! Learning, or memorizing, sight words frees up cognitive thinking that can then be spent on words that the student doesn’t know. Sight words often don’t follow phonetic patterns or ones that the reader is familiar with. Fewer words to decode promotes reading comprehension and fluency. The bottom line is when you don’t have to stop and break down every single word it just makes reading easier. It allows the reader to spend that brainpower focusing on what they’re reading … comprehending. And as I’ve told my students many times, it doesn’t matter how beautifully you can read, if you don’t know what you’ve read you’re just wasting your time.
How To Teach Sight Words
The first step in teaching sight words is to decide what words you want to teach. The two most common sight word lists are Dolch and Fry. As a special education teacher, I’ve also used the word list on the Brigance, but it’s basically the same words from Dolch and Fry. I thought they were all basically the same, just the order was different. However, I recently read that the Fry list is more modern and expanded to the most frequently read 1000 words, having been updated in the 1980s by Dr. Fry.
Eventually, I ended up settling on the Fry list because I found a great resource that someone created with the lists, assessments, and flashcards that could be printed and it was all free. I used these over and over and shared them with parents as well.
After you decide on the word list you’re going to use, then you need to get baseline data for each student. You test each student to find out how many sight words they know. Start at the beginning of the list and have them read the words until they start missing too many. You’ll have to be the judge on how many is too many. I expect a high percentage rate for sight words. So I want them to have above 90-95% accuracy rate.
I put the words on cards (black on white) and flash them (5 seconds or less). If they get them right, I check them on a master list. That’s where I keep up with the accuracy rate. **Don’t think you can just have them read them off a list. They’ll start to memorize the list, plus the cards allow you to enlarge the words, isolate one word at a time, and lets you control the timing.
Once you decide on the words you want to teach, you need to decide on how many. This decision was always based on my students. Sometimes I introduced 5 words a week. Sometimes it was 10 a week. Sometimes it was 3 a week. Sometimes it was 1 a week. It all depends on the students and their abilities.
There are lots of ways to teach sight words. Lots. I grouped my students if I could. Then I worked with them in groups each day reviewing the sight words on flashcards. I know there are people who do not like flashcards and that’s ok. But when I was working on my master’s degree for special education, we were taught that using flashcards (black on white) is the best way to teach/learn information. And I had a lot of success using flashcards with my students. Were they the only thing I used? No. But they were the basis for what I used.
So we reviewed the sight words daily on flashcards, then we usually played a game with the sight words. Usually, it was a game I’d made up using the flashcards. But I also made board games as well. I’d make seasonal boards on posterboard using Ellison diecuts and if they could read their sight word they’d get to move ahead. If they couldn’t read the word, I’d tell them the word and it would go back into the stack.
Instead of Hang Man, we played Draw a Man. I’d show them a word on the flashcard. If they missed their word, they had to draw a circle on their paper. (head) Every time they missed a word they added to the picture a facial feature until they were down to squiggly strands of hair sticking straight up. We only did the head and there really wasn’t a winner it was more just for fun.
The most important thing was every time they missed a word, I told them the correct word, had them repeat it, and returned that word to the stack so that they had another opportunity to see, read and hear it again.
After doing this Monday through Thursday, I tested them individually on the words on Friday. The words were flashed to them in random order for 5 seconds each. (I’d count in my head to 5) If they missed the word I would just put the word down and continue to the next word. I would put the correct words in one stack and the incorrect words in another. If they didn’t do well, I would wait to transfer their answers to the assessment page after they went back to their seat. Otherwise, I’d do it while they were sitting there so I could encourage them to keep studying and practicing. *If you have a TA this might be something you’d want to delegate, but be warned … you have to be sure that the person doing the assessment isn’t coaching the student or you won’t have accurate data and it will seem as if they’re mastering the words when in fact they aren’t. The student shouldn’t have time to sound out the words, “look at it again”, etc. I would be more apt to have the TA do the daily practice and I would be the one to do the actual assessment. But I have control issues and I know that I’m the one responsible for ensuring that the yearly goals are met.
I used the assessment page from the link I provided above to keep track of each student’s words. I put a + for each word they’d mastered each week and a – for each word they missed. And I tested them on all the words that we’d introduced for that list. I don’t remember if I sent home a copy of that test, but that would be the most powerful for parents to see. They get to see exactly how many words their child achieved out of a specified number of words. (You can highlight those words.) Plus it gives them an extra copy of the words to study. We also occasionally went back to review words from past lists.
Involving the Parents
Should you involve the parents? Yes. You should try. Although many students of all socio-economic backgrounds may have parents that aren’t involved with homework because of all kinds of reasons. And we know … and this is important … that learning sight words can not be done by the student themselves. So why try to involve parents? Because there are other family members and friends who just might surprise you.
A few years before I retired, we had a professional development that impressed upon me that if we wanted parents to help our students, then we needed to send them what they needed to get that job done. So instead of sending a list of sight words home for the parents to study with my students and a note telling them they could make flashcards, I needed to actually send them the flashcards. So that’s exactly what I started doing. I sent them the flashcards they needed for that week, already cut out and in a bag.
And I talked it up with my students. I talked to them about the responsibility of keeping up with their cards and studying each day. I asked them who they could get to help them because learning sight words can not be done by the student themselves. If they couldn’t come up with a parent or adult, I went to older siblings in our school and recruited “teachers” to help them. I talked to the siblings about being their teacher and paid them in candy. (One of my best “teachers” was a 2nd grader!) When the kids did great on their tests (and they did!) I sent certificates home to both the student and the sibling/teacher with candy. And I sent notes with candy to parents/family telling them how much I appreciated them helping their child/family member study for their test. I’ve never had as much success with parent/family involvement and it showed in the success of my students.
So to help you out if you want to use this method, I’ve created some “awards” for both students and parents so that you only have to print, fill in the name, date, circle his/her and sign. And they’re FREE! Just click HERE to grab yours! I hope they work just as well for you as this method did for my class!!
Resources for Teaching Sight Words
As I said before, there are lots of ways to teach sight words. But a student can not learn sight words without someone who has already mastered those words. So putting two kids together to do flashcards that don’t know the words is not helpful and can be harmful, because they could be practicing reading the words wrong. Also, putting a student in a Center to write or build sight words is not helping them to learn to read sight words. It might help them learn to spell a word they already know, but it’s not helping them learn how to read sight words since there’s no one there telling them the words they don’t know. The best and most efficient way to learn how to read sight words is with someone who already has mastery.
Below are some resources you can use to teach sight words. Click on the image:
*link for using emergent readers
I hope this has helped if you struggle with teaching sight words. Writing this reminds me of how much I loved teaching and makes me miss the classroom.
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