Language Arts Canadian Lead Primary School

Sight Words

“In education, the term sight word has at least three meanings. We will be using only one. A sight word is a familiar written word that we recognize instantly, automatically, and effortlessly, without sounding it out or guessing. It doesn’t matter if the word is phonically regular or irregular. The point is that a word is immediately recognized. A sight word vocabulary (or simply sight vocabulary), refers to all of the words a student knows instantly and automatically. Phonemic awareness plays a central role in building a student’s sight vocabulary. This may seem puzzling because most people assume that we store words based on visual memory. However…scientists have shown that this is not the case.”

David Kilpatrick 2018

Words are not independent objects to be learned by sight like people’s faces or the flags of the world’s nations. They contain a limited set of parts that can be combined and recombined to form many and varied wholes.

Words are abstract concepts stored in various ways. Awareness of each abstract form of a word leads to deeper learning, not only of that word, but also of the writing system in general. A word contains information about sound, meaning, its unique orthographic pattern and its possible interactions with other words. Teaching by visual information only is a cheap meal when you could have a banquet.

Let’s look at some common myths:

Myth 1:“Sight words are irregular words that cannot be sounded out.”

Fact: The English writing system has complexity, and any high quality instructional program will contain a scope and sequence designed to teach that complexity systematically. Within a high quality system like this, few words are irregular.

Myth 2: “Sight words are words that need to be learned as wholes and not a sum of their parts.”

Fact: Learning whole words without attention to internal structure or morphological kinships is possible for some words, but certainly not all  words. A better system teaches structure.

Myth 3: “Sight words are stored in visual memory.”

Fact: Multiple experiments, including mixed case and font experiments have shown conclusively that permanent word storage is not an act of visual memory. Word recognition is in fact faster than recognition of visual objects. Research has also shown that children with excellent visual memories can still struggle with reading.

So how do we permanently store a word to make it into “a familiar written word that we recognize instantly, automatically, and effortlessly, without sounding it out or guessing”?

As Dr Linnea Ehri says: 

“Any word becomes a sight word when its spelling (letters) is fully connected to its pronunciation (sounds) and meaning in memory.”

In other words: structure, phonology, meaning are the features worth noticing in words. If you get good at recognising these aspects of words, you get good at teaching them for permanent storage.

So take your time. Don’t rush to push your sight word list onto novices who are still grappling with graphemes. Even if you do get your students to memorise a set of whole words by sight, your job is only half done if you haven’t taught them to spell those words.

Give them the phoneme-grapheme correspondences they need and teach them not only that words are spelled the way they are, but why. It will take you longer, you will have to think harder, and at the end of one year you will definitely not have covered as many words as you would have if you were taking whole word shortcuts. But those effects have a ceiling, whereas teaching how to connect structure, sound and meaning is limitless!

Give a child a whole-word list and she reads for a day. Teach her how the writing system works, and she reads for life!

Sight words

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