Sight Word Recognition

The third critical component for successful word recognition is sight word recognition. A small percentage of words cannot be identified by deliberately sounding them out, yet they appear frequently in print. They are “exceptions” because some of their letters do not follow common letter-sound correspondences. Examples of such words are “once,” “put,” and “does.” (Notice that in the word “put,” however, that only the vowel makes an exception sound, unlike the sound it would make in similar words such as “gut,” “rut,” or “but.”) As a result of the irregularities, exception words must be memorized; sounding them out will not work.

Since these exception words must often be memorized as a visual unit (i.e., by sight), they are frequently called “sight words,” and this leads to confusion among teachers. This is because words that occur frequently in print, even those that are decodable (e.g., “in,” “will,” and “can”), are also often called “sight words.” Of course it is important for these decodable, highly frequent words to be learned early (preferably by attending to their sounds rather than just by memorization), right along with the others that are not decodable because they appear so frequently in the texts that will be read. For the purposes of this chapter, sight words are familiar, high frequency words that must be memorized because they have irregular spellings and cannot be perfectly decoded.

Why sight word recognition is important

One third of beginning readers’ texts are mostly comprised of familiar, high frequency words such as “the” and “of,” and almost half of the words in print are comprised of the 100 most common words (Fry, Kress, & Fountoukidis, 2000). It is no wonder that these words need to be learned to the point of automaticity so that smooth, fluent word recognition and reading can take place.

Interestingly, skilled readers who decode well tend to become skilled sight word “recognizers,” meaning that they learn irregular sight words more readily than those who decode with difficulty (Gough & Walsh, 1991). This reason is because as they begin learning to read, they are taught to be aware of phonemes, they learn letter-sound correspondences, and they put it all together to begin decoding while practicing reading books. While reading a lot of books, they are repeatedly exposed to irregularly spelled, highly frequent sight words, and as a result of this repetition, they learn sight words to automaticity. Therefore, irregularly spelled sight words can be learned from wide, independent reading of books. However, children who struggle learning to decode do not spend a lot of time practicing reading books, and therefore, do not encounter irregularly spelled sight words as often. These students will need more deliberate instruction and additional practice opportunities.

Sight word recognition instruction

Teachers should notice that the majority of letters in many irregularly spelled words do in fact follow regular sound-symbol pronunciations (e.g., in the word “from” only the “o” is irregular), and as a result attending to the letters and sounds can often lead to correct pronunciation. That is why it is still helpful to teach students to notice all letters in words to anchor them in memory, rather than to encourage “guess reading” or “looking at the first letter,” which are both highly unreliable strategies as anyone who has worked with young readers will attest. Interestingly, Tunmer and Chapman (2002) discovered that beginning readers who read unknown words by “sounding them out” outperformed children who employed strategies such as guessing, looking at the pictures, rereading the sentence on measures of word reading and reading comprehension, at the end of their first year in school and at the middle of their third year in school.

Other than developing sight word recognition from wide, independent reading of books or from exposure on classroom word walls, instruction in learning sight words is similar to instruction used to learn letter-sound correspondences. Sources of irregularly spelled sight words can vary. For instance, they can be preselected from the text that will be used for that day’s reading instruction. Lists of irregularly spelled sight words can be found in reading programs or on the Internet (search for Fry lists or Dolch lists). When using such lists, determine which words are irregularly spelled because they will also feature highly frequent words that can be decoded, such as “up,” and “got.” These do not necessarily need deliberate instructional time because the students will be able to read them using their knowledge of letters and sounds.

Regardless of the source, sight words can be practiced using flash cards or word lists, making sure to review those that have been previously taught to solidify deep learning. Gradual introduction of new words into the card piles or lists should include introduction such as pointing out features that may help learning and memorization (e.g., “where” and “there” both have a tall letter “h” which can be thought of as an arrow or road sign pointing to where or there). Sets of words that share patterns can be taught together (e.g., “would,” “could,” and “should”). Games such as Go Fish, Bingo, or Concentration featuring cards with these words can build repetition and exposure, and using peer-based learning, students can do speed drills with one another and record scores.

Any activity requiring the students to spell the words aloud is also helpful. I invented an activity that I call “Can You Match It?” in which peers work together to practice a handful of sight words. An envelope or flap is taped across the top of a small dry erase board. One student chooses a card, tells the partner what the word is, and then places the card inside the envelope or flap so that it is not visible. The student with the dry erase board writes the word on the section of board that is not covered by the envelope, then opens the envelope to see if their spelling matches the word on the card. The ultimate goal in all of these activities is to provide a lot of repetition and practice so that highly frequent, irregularly spelled sight words become words students can recognize with just a glance.