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Sight Words in Early Reading Instruction

By: Dr. Paul Robb

The sight word assessments included in FastBridge Learning’s earlyReading measures are based on the most frequently used English words. The fact that these assessments are strong indicators of early reading success suggests an important role for sight word instruction in kindergarten and first grade. But what role exactly? Where does sight word instruction fit in balanced reading instruction in the early elementary grades?

The Big Picture: Decoding Skills and Balanced Reading Instruction

When teaching young children to read, we must never lose sight of the multidimensional nature of reading instruction. Effective teachers address all aspects of reading: explicit phonics instruction, fluency, background knowledge, vocabulary, comprehension skills, and, yes, motivation and engagement. Helping children to feel good about themselves as readers and, hopefully, come to love reading, is as important as teaching the skills of reading.

It is well established that systematic, explicit phonics instruction plays a critical role in early reading instruction; yet, it is also true that children need to acquire a certain number of sight words in order to tackle beginning reading successfully. In particular, young readers need to learn certain high frequency words that do not follow phonics rules (e.g., was, said). For many beginning struggling readers, the best approach is to find reading materials that contain a high percentage of phonetically regular words along with some amount of high frequency sight words. The advantage of using reading material with these features is that it gives children the opportunity to apply the phonics skills they are learning in the context of actual reading, while also providing practice reading sight words in context. The Sound Out Chapter Books, published by High Noon, are one example of a book series with both of these features.

How Children Decode or Identify Words in Reading

There are really only three ways that children identify words when reading. The first is by “sounding out” the word using phonics skills. The second is by recognizing the word visually. The third is by guessing the word based on context. Research has demonstrated that guessing by context is highly inefficient, especially for struggling readers. Note that many children will use a combination of these three approaches, and context is best used to facilitate or confirm word decoding rather than being used as a primary method of word identification. In fact, an emphasis on guessing words based on context can be highly counterproductive for many at-risk readers who may come more and more to rely on guessing. Rather, it is important to systematically teach phonics skills to mastery. It is the process of decoding words, along with vocabulary knowledge, that leads to word recognition automaticity for most English words. The best description I have ever read of why this is true, and how it happens in the brain, was written by Marilyn Jager Adams (2011).

What About Sight Words?

Many educators have been led to believe that there are a high percentage of phonetically irregular words in the English language. Although it is true that words in English have more phonetic irregularities than some other languages, such as Spanish, there is still a surprising amount of phonetic regularity in the English language. About 85% of English words are decodable using phonics (Moats & Tolman, 2009). For this reason, phonics should be the primary word attack method taught and emphasized in early reading. However, a certain amount of sight word instruction should be included, particularly in early reading, because many of these words (e.g.,to, the, of, was, there) are irregular, and are best taught as sight words. Because these words are high frequency, teaching these words alongside  a strong phonics program, can best facilitate access to beginning reading material for young children.

Some Caveats

Too much emphasis on teaching sight words can sometimes crowd out phonics instruction, or even reading practice. In some reading programs, the teaching of sight words takes on an exaggerated importance and can become an end goal for many teachers rather than being viewed as a supporting piece in early reading instruction. It should be noted that skill in sight word reading can be as much an outcome of good reading as it is a “cause” of good reading. In other words, good readers will often tend to master more sight words as a result of their general vocabulary knowledge applied during reading, which can lead to the conclusion that a strong emphasis on teaching sight words is well placed. Instead, teaching certain sight words with phonics is best.

Another concern with over-emphasizing sight word instruction is that too much emphasis on teaching irregular words can actually undermine children’s confidence in their ability to decode words that are phonetically regular. Of course, not all high frequency sight words are phonetically irregular, but, as noted earlier, the strongest emphasis should be placed on explicitly teaching phonics; sight word instruction should be viewed as having only a supporting role in early reading instruction.

Separating Sight Word Instruction From Phonics Instruction

It is important to separate phonics instruction and sight word instruction to some extent so that children learn to decode phonetically regular words with confidence when receiving phonics instruction, but learn to recognize sight words by sight through teaching, repeated exposure, and practice. Note that much of this repeated exposure should occur through actual reading of text whenever possible.

When designing reading interventions for at-risk readers, early reading assessments can be used to guide instruction. If a child demonstrates strong early phonics skills but seems to have difficulty with sight words, then a stronger emphasis on sight word instruction would be indicated. In most cases, the two approaches should be balanced, with the ultimate goal of getting children into books they can read successfully.

Word Walls and Incremental Rehearsal

Word walls can be an effective whole classroom approach to sight word exposure. Classroom teachers have many creative approaches to the use of word walls in their classroom, but many will include a combination of high frequency words and vocabulary words. These word walls are equally valuable as children learn to use some of these words in their writing.

For children who need additional instruction in sight words, an incremental rehearsal approach can be very effective. In this approach, children are taught the easiest high frequency words first. These first few words are taught to mastery with repeated practice, and then new words are added gradually to be practiced with the “known” words. As the number of known words increases to approximately 10, the most well-known words can be taken out so that new words can be added while keeping the total list to about 10 words. Only one new word should be added to the list of known words at any one time, although new words can be added during a single lesson if a new word becomes a known word quite readily. This is just a general guideline, and teachers should use their best judgment in working with individual children. The strength of this approach is that the child will have success with known words while receiving repeated exposure to build automaticity, and, at the same time, will acquire new words at a steady rate. Follow this link for a more detailed description of this method: http://www.fastbridge.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Incremental-Rehearsal-Intervention-Brief-2.pdf

As with all reading instruction, regular assessment to evaluate student progress is needed.  In the case of sight words, the FAST™ earlyReading Sight Word assessment is an effective way to monitor students’ mastery of high frequency English words.

References

Adams, M. J. (2011). The relationship between alphabetic basics, word recognition and reading. In Samuels, S. J., & Farstrup, A. E. (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (4th ed., pp. 4-24). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. http://www.fastbridge.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/The-Relation-between-Alphabetic-Basics-Word-Recognition-and-Reading.pdf

Moats, L., & Tolman, C. (2016). English gets a bad rap. Retrieved from: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/english-gets-bad-rap.
Paul Robb is a school psychologist with over 30 years of experience. He has a doctorate in Educational Leadership, and has extensive experience teaching, training, and consulting in psychology and education.  He is a member of the FastBridge team as an affiliate and trainer.  

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