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).
And consider this: Almost half the top fifty words are spelled in ways that make it difficult to figure them out by matching sounds to letters. For example, shouldn’t the word said rhyme with aid? How about where? Shouldn’t it rhyme with were instead of air? And what surely must rhyme with at. Then there is from, which ought to rhyme with Tom; and come, which obviously must rhyme with home. We could go on and on, but don’t worry, we won’t. Since youngsters will be constantly frustrated if they try to apply their emerging phonemic understandings to these frequently occurring words, memorizing them is really the only answer.
The fact that these words are so common in print makes it more likely that the more children read, the more they will encounter the words and the more quickly they will learn them. This process is assisted by frequent and repeated group readings of pattern books that contain many common words, such as Bill Martin, Jr.’s, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1983). Follow-up activities can further assist the process for those needing or wanting extra practice. One useful activity is matching teacher-made sentence strips to the story. Another is making and frequently reading a class book that adapts the Brown Bear book pattern and repeats the key words. For instance, Mrs. Hanna’s students love their pattern book about themselves. Each page has a picture of a child, and the first few pages read, “Isobel, Isobel, who do you see? I see Nathan looking at me. Nathan, Nathan, who do you see? I see Ian looking at me.” Teaching sight words with pattern books can be much more effective than using vocabulary-controlled basal readers.
Games can also help children learn to recognize common words quickly. During literacy choice time, Ms. Montoya’s students frequently choose the fishing game she made for them. This game involves fishing for paper fish that have a word from a favorite book written on them. Each fish has a paper clip where its mouth should be, and the fishing poles (pointers with string tied to them) each have a magnet at the end of the line. When Tenzin hooks a fish, he can’t keep it unless he can read the word. If he has trouble landing his fish, his fishing buddies can give him clues. A clue can be a reminder of what story the word was in, the meaning of the word, or another word that rhymes with the word. The active and interactive nature of this game is an important part of its success.
When, to the children’s dismay, many words look so much alike, games are useful. All those words that start with wh (what, where, when, why, and who) and those other ones that start with th (then, there, they, those, and them) can slow reading progress and disrupt fluency. The children have learned these words in a meaningful context, but now they need to develop quick, rote memory to distinguish among them. Because these words so often appear in context, Mrs. Thomas is willing for children to practice with them as isolated words. She has created a type of lotto game for practicing quick identification of these words. Sometimes an older reading buddy visits the first-grade classroom during language arts center time and plays this game with the first graders who are confusing those abstract wh and th words. Many children choose this game during literacy center time.
One isolated word does have meaning, and children learn it by itself. That word is the child’s name, and it is generally the first sight word a child learns. Most children also quickly learn to read the names of other children in their classroom if name labels are used frequently for attendance, chore assignments, and identification of work and possessions. Activities using children’s names provide a natural way to increase phonemic awareness (Kirk & Clark, 2005). Learning names provides a store of knowledge for comparisons with new words encountered. For instance, when Nathan dictates a story about his beach trip, he can be helped to notice that shell begins like his friend Shawn’s name. This contributes both to recognizing a new sight word and to an understanding of the nature of graphophonemic systems.
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