Written by Kelli Johnson
August 18, 2015 @ 9:30 am
Consider for a moment how the landscape of early reading instruction would look if “sight words,” often seen in the form of Word Walls or word lists sent home for children to memorize, ceased to exist. At the risk of sounding like a heretic within the field of education, this scenario is not far from what I’d like to propose.
Specifically, I would like to see us redefine what truly qualifies as a sight word, as many traditional “sight words” that children are asked to memorize can easily be decoded when a phonics approach is applied.
Considering the estimation that over 90% of the English language is phonetically regular, one wonders why students are routinely given lists of words for rote memorization rather than strategies for decoding words commonly encountered in text. For example, many first grade sight word lists contain such words as can, it, on, if, did, and, in, all of which are easily decoded if students are explicitly taught the closed syllable pattern (a single vowel immediately followed by a consonant will produce its short sound.) Likewise, instructing students about the open syllable (ends with a vowel, producing a long sound as in he, she, go) or the vowel-consonant-e syllable (as in came, ride, use) will enable the accurate decoding of a seemingly infinite number of words inaccurately categorized as “sight words.”
These examples represent three of the six syllable types and they allow students to access the majority of the words on any given “sight word” list, leaving only the “outlaw words” such as was, one, many, of, to be committed to memory. By reevaluating what words actually need to be memorized, a sizable number of words will be redefined as phonetically regular, thereby impressing upon students the reality that most words can be “sounded out” rather than memorized. Memorizing only leads to trying to recall large volumes of whole words; an ineffective and inefficient approach to reading.
Some great practices that creative educators are using to deemphasize memorization include illustrating “outlaw words” in a “jail cell” bulletin board or posting phonetically irregular words on a paper heart as a reminder that certain words just need to be “remembered by heart.” This way, the words are available for students to reference in their writing, but memorizing is deemphasized.
As educators become increasingly familiar with the syllable types as defined by the Common Core standards and reevaluate of how sight words are defined, it is hoped that traditional routines of assigning spelling lists and choosing the correct text for students to practice reading fluently will likewise follow...but those are subjects for another post!
Go to our Literacy and Reading page to see more on reading instruction and decoding words.
Our place to post news and tips about us and our educational community. Please feel free to follow or comment.