Let’s start with sight words because they tend to create a good starting place for youngsters’ reading. The term hasn’t changed lately, though ideas about how to teach sight words certainly have. When you were young, you may have had to memorize a list of words, possibly the famous Dolch word list (Dolch, 1945). Children used to be drilled in and tested on these sight words with flash cards. We enjoyed seeing reading expert Sam Sebesta demonstrate the best use of Dolch flash cards by tearing them up and throwing them in the air. We do think it is important to learn sight words; we just don’t think that the flash-card approach is useful. Learning the most common words is best done within a context of meaningful print.
Sight words—those instantly recognizable words that no longer require effort from a child—stand out as important for beginning reading. They provide children success in their reading efforts, and they provide a starting point for learning graphophonemic strategies. Children learn most words through repeated exposure to them while reading various materials. Story time, shared reading, independent reading, and reading conferences all help learners add to their store of sight words. Repetitious pattern books are especially well suited to assisting the development of a sight-word vocabulary. Signs, labels, name tags, and other print in the environment add to a child’s sight-word vocabulary as well. As children become aware of and interested in print, they are motivated to memorize some of the words around them that have personal meaning. Most young children quickly learn words such as Mom and love, for instance.
You can understand how helpful it is to recognize the most frequently used words when you realize that just ten words make up almost a quarter of all the words used in English-language printed material (the, and, to, is, that, of, a, in, you, it). The top twenty-five words constitute up to one third of all printed material (Fry & Kress, 2006).
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