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Guest Edition: How to Teach Sight Words Correctly

If you have a child in kindergarten, first grade, or second grade, you’ve probably heard the term “sight words.” Many teachers use this term when talking about words like of, the, and they.

Most teachers send lists of sight words home for kids to memorize. Their reasoning is that these words can’t be phonetically decoded, so they have to be “memorized by sight.”

Students usually have a goal number of sight words they are supposed to read by the end of the year, such as 50 words by the end of kindergarten or 150 words by the end of first grade.

Is this how your child’s school teaches sight words?

Here’s the problem with this approach…

it’s not based on reading science and is totally ineffective.

There’s a better way to teach these tricky words!

The Truth About Sight Words

The truth is ANY word you read automatically is a sight word, not just a word from a list sent home by a teacher.

A first grader might be able to read words like go, some, and Target by sight, but a doctor can read words like photorefractive keratectomy* or adenocarcinoma* without having to slow down or sound them out.

*I needed to slow down and sound these words out, so they’re definitely not sight words for me!

The words teachers refer to as “sight words” are actually high-frequency words, which fall into one of three categories:

  1. Phonetically regular high-frequency words are decodable, such as had and and.

  2. Phonetically irregular high-frequency words have a tricky part that can’t be decoded, such as of and was.

  3. Temporarily phonetically irregular high-frequency words will become phonetically regular once kids learn those phonics patterns, such as is and go.

High-frequency words are the most commonly-seen words in print, so teachers want students to know them automatically. That’s why we explicitly teach them.

But asking kids to memorize these words from a list is NOT the way to go.

The Best Way to Teach High-Frequency Words

Instead of asking children to memorize high-frequency words, we want to teach them to follow 3 steps to permanently store each word in their sight word memories:

  1. Orally pull apart the sounds in the word.

  2. Match those sounds to printed letters and point out any tricky parts.

  • The tricky parts need to be remembered by heart…you can draw a heart above them to remind your child they’re tricky!

  1. Blend the sounds to read the word.

This process is called the Heart Word Method and is extremely effective for beginning readers. You can learn more about this method in this video.

Once a child has stored a word in their sight word memory, they can’t NOT read the word! They read it automatically and fluently every time they see it.

As Dr. Jan Wasowicz said, “Every word wants to be a sight word when it grows up!"

Heart Word Method with the Word THE

Let’s look at the high-frequency word the as an example and follow the 3 steps listed above:

  1. How many sounds in the word the

  • /th/ /u/ = 2 sounds

  1. Which letters spell those sounds?

  • /th/ = th

  • This is a normal phonics rule once your child knows their digraphs.

  • If they don't know the digraph “th” yet, you can teach this as a tricky part.

  • /u/ = e

  • This is the tricky part!

  • The /u/ sound is usually spelled with letter u, but in this word it’s spelled with letter e. This is the part we need to remember by heart.

  • Draw a heart above the e to remind your child it’s the tricky part!

  1. Let’s blend the sounds to read the word.

  • /th/ /u/ = the

Why Does This Method Work?

The Heart Word Method is so effective because it requires kids to match the sounds in a word to the spelling of the word, which is how words become stored in our sight word memories.

The mental process that helps readers learn to recognize words by sight is called orthographic mapping.

According to Dr. Linnea Ehri, “Orthographic mapping involves the formation of letter-sound connections to bond the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of specific words in memory. It explains how children learn to read words by sight, to spell words from memory, and to acquire vocabulary words from print.”

When we ask children to memorize whole words, we aren’t promoting orthographic mapping, which is why kids struggle to remember these words.

Moving Forward

If you want your child to be a strong reader, use the Heart Word Method to help them orthographically map high-frequency words into their sight word memories, and watch their reading take off!

If you remember one thing from this post, I hope it’s this:

Poor readers memorize words that might be forgotten in a week or two, but effective readers orthographically map them into their sight word memories so they stay there forever!

Erin is a former classroom teacher (M.Ed) and the founder of Littles Love Learning. She has over 15 years experience in the field of education and is passionate about teaching parents how to teach their kids to read correctly and effectively based on the Science of Reading.

Erin shares lots of FREE information through her YouTube channel, podcast, and website. You can connect with Erin on Facebook or Instagram (@littleslovelearningblog). 



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