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Defining and Assessing Sight Vocabulary

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Any word can be a sight word for an individual student. Those words that she can say instantly, without applying any form of word analysis, are in her sight vocabulary.

Some students’ sight vocabularies are not at their grade level. These students may need some form of direct intervention to help bring their sight vocabulary up to grade level. In advancing from grade to grade, students should increase their sight vocabularies at each grade level. Students’ sight vocabularies are not up to grade level unless they can correctly pronounce 95% of the words in books written at their grade level. Students who have not mastered an adequate number of sight words are greatly handicapped because they must analyze many more words than normal readers.

A special set of words that are expected to become part of every student’s sight vocabulary are called basic sight words. Basic sight words are words that occur frequently in most material students encounter. There are several lists of the common or basic sight words. Because these words appear frequently, it is essential that students recognize them instantly. If students do not have these words in their sight vocabulary, or cannot recognize them instantly, they cannot become fluent readers. Students often confuse certain basic sight words, especially those with similar beginnings, such as when, where, and what or this, that, and those.

Assessing Sight Vocabulary

The method of determining if a word is in a student’s sight vocabulary is to show the student the word for less than one second. The student is expected to say what the word is as soon as she sees it. This can be done by covering the word with a card, moving the card so the word is exposed for a brief moment and then covering the word again. This covering and uncovering of the word is known as flashing the word. When you are assessing sight words, it is important to expose the word to the student for a limited amount of time. A quick showing of the word for a second or less is desirable so that the reader is not using phonics or structural analysis to decode the word.

If during a lesson you want to know if a specific word is in the student’s sight vocabulary, write the word on the board or a piece of paper and quickly flash the word to the student. If she can instantly tell you what the word is, it is part of her sight vocabulary.

Graded word lists are used to determine the overall level of a student’s sight vocabulary. These lists contain words that have been determined to be commonly used at a specific grade level. The lists usually begin at the preprimer (PP) level and move up in grade level to sixth grade. Some lists cover more grade levels, going to the 8th or even 12th grade. By flashing the words on the graded lists moving from the lowest grade level to higher grade levels, you will reach a point where the student is no longer able to read most of the words. The last level where the student can successfully read most of the words on the list is that student’s overall sight word level. It is reported as a grade level. For example, a child reading most of the words on the fourth grade level list but not able to read many of the words on the fifth grade level list would be reported as having a strong sight vocabulary through the fourth grade level.

Having a student read the words in books written at her grade level is another method of determining if a student’s sight vocabulary is up to grade level. If the student can correctly pronounce 95% of the words in a book at a certain grade level, then her sight vocabulary is considered to be at that grade level. One of the better readability formulas can be used to determine an accurate grade level for a book.

When using the Basic Sight Words and Phrases test, you should present each word for approximately one-half to 1 second. If you give the student more time than this to look at the word, then, to some extent, the test becomes a measure of word-analysis skills rather than of knowledge of basic sight words. You can have the student read words from a list; however, it is difficult to control the time each word is exposed to the student. If you have the student read basic sight words from a list, remember to count as wrong any word at which the student pauses for more than 1 second. The best way to test basic sight words is to use flash cards with a tape recorder. Specific instructions for doing this are presented along with the lists of basic sight words and phrases in Appendix . This procedure should be used to test both the individual basic sight words and the basic sight word phrases. Each sight word test takes approximately 6 minutes per student to administer and score.

A first grader is generally expected to master about one-third of the basic sight word list by the end of the year, a second grader is expected to master another third, and a third grader should master the final third of the list by the end of the school year. Mastery means that the student can pronounce the basic sight words instantly on viewing them. Also, the student should pronounce the words correctly each time they appear. If a student mispronounces or even hesitates on the pronunciation of a basic sight word, or if the student pronounces the word correctly only some of the time, then the student has not mastered this basic sight word.

Many older students and most illiterate adults have significant problems with basic sight words. These individuals, along with primary-grade children who are not progressing satisfactorily, need systematic and thorough instruction on basic sight words.

You can also do some “on your feet” assessing of a student’s basic sight word vocabulary. By observing your students when they read orally, you can determine whether they usually pronounce basic sight words accurately. With some experience, you will have little difficulty recognizing which words are basic sight words.

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