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I’ve been asked a few questions recently about what do when sight words just aren’t “sticking” for a child. My approach to literacy has and always will be a developmental approach. My developmental philosophy has been grounded by the authors of Words Their Way, and Linnea Ehri, a nationally known reading researcher.
Her article Phases of Word Learning, published in Reading & Writing Quarterly in 1995, was VERY helpful to me in understanding how kids learn words. She explains that there are phases of development in word learning with a typical learner. In her article, she lists 5 stages of word learning, but I’m only going to focus on the first three for the sake of time. She also explains in her article how each of these phases affects sight word knowledge. If your child is struggling in this area, maybe Ehri can offer you some help.
*Disclaimer: Learners with other reading differences, like dyslexia, may not fit into these categories so neatly
Phase 1: PRE-ALPHABETIC learners typically…
- have a very limited knowledge of letters (know very few letters or letter sounds)
- do not understand the connection between letters and sounds to help them read words
- can “read” environmental print (example: “Mommy, that says Chick-Fil-a!” when they see the sign for Chick-Fil-a)
- have trouble learning words apart from pictures or logos
- may remember a few sight words because of their shape or “picture”
- can “pretend read” a book they’ve heard before and may even sound like they are reading the story word-for-word
In this phase, learning sight words will be extremely difficult because words are learned by their shape or “picture”, not by the individual letters or word patterns. I love how Dr. Francine Johnston calls this phase the “any clue will do” stage.
The problem with remembering words by their shape/picture is that there simply isn’t enough of a visual difference between words for the child to even have a chance! For example, when the child is faced with took, she will probably say it is look because took also has the two oo‘s in the middle that look like eyes. Big (because of its tail) may also be read dog. Ehri suggests that some readers may even say see for look because they can’t read the actual word, so their strategy is to remember the concept of the word. (142)
Some children move through this stage quickly, while others may move through it slowly. But no matter the age of your reader, if she is in this stage, sight words aren’t going to “stick” too well because there just isn’t much to “stick” them to!
Phase 2: PARTIAL-ALPHABETIC learners typically…
- can match some of the letters to their sounds (may know most of their letters, but not know more complex phonograms like sh, th, or ch)
- rely heavily on context clues to help them read (pictures or sentence structure)
- do not have strong decoding strategies to read unknown words
- use partial cues to read words- example: they may use only the first and last letter to help them read a word, so block may be read back.
In the partial-alphabetic phase, learning sight words is made a little easier, but “because their knowledge of the system is limited, and because they lack full phonemic segmentation ability, they process only partial-letter relations to form connections in learning sight words.” (145)
Sight words can be learned in this stage, but Ehri suggests teaching similarly spelled sight words separately. For example, teach words like no and on at separate times to limit confusion. I also suggest to take it VERY slowly.
Even as kids progress closer to Full-Alphabetic Learners (see the next section), throwing lots of new sight words at them at one time is confusing. That’s why Learn to Read only introduces two new sight words a lesson. Each lesson builds on the last set of sight words, so review is factored in each lesson!
Phase 3: FULL-ALPHABETIC learners typically…
- understand and can process letter-sound correspondences, including vowels and other phonogram sets like ch or th
- can figure out unknown words by analogy (unknown word: blight, but can read it because she says, “Hmmm…this unknown word has the word light in it.”)
- text reading can still be slow and laborious at times
Children in this stage have a “sizable growth in their sight vocabularies as a result of reading practice” and new decoding strategies. (150) In this stage, sight words have a much better chance to “stick” because of the child’s understanding of how letters and words work.
Practical Ways to Help Words “Stick”
Because I’m a practical gal, here are a few suggestions for your child remember sight words when she shows signs that she is ready:
- When we first started, I created books for ALuv to read that focused on just a couple of sight words at a time, making the book very repetitive. For example: “I see a _____.” on each page. He’d fill in the blank and draw the pictures to go with it.
- Make it multi-sensory! Move and chant the words. I have two sets of FREE sight words chants you can download and use: 1- Animal Sight Word Chants and 2- People Sight Word Chants. My kiddos love these!
- When you’re working on a particular word, point it out every time you see it in text anywhere you see it. The great thing about sight words is that they are everywhere!
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- Play games with sight words: Play simple games with dice, such as Sight Word Bump! or Roll and Write Sight Words. I have over 700 pages of printable spelling games and activities in my ebook, many of them for sight words! If you need even more ideas, our collection of 50 Hands-On Spelling Activities should help.
- Make a Word Wall where you can keep sight words you’ve worked on
- Review the Word Wall words frequently
- WRITE, WRITE, WRITE! When a child writes words, it builds that phonemic segmentation, the awareness of sounds in words, and gives them exposure to the sight words in a meaningful way.
- Be explicit in pointing out the tricky parts of some sight words. For example, show the word they and say, “Look at this word. The th makes the /th/ sound, like you know already, but the e & the y make the long a sound. That’s kind of tricky, isn’t it?”
- Sometimes I’ll simply ask the child, “What part of this word will be easy to remember?” or “What part of the word is tricky?” By taking the time to examine the word and the parts of it, you are helping them store it in memory better.
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For more developmentally appropriate tips for spelling, check out my ebook, Teaching Kids to Spell: A Developmental Approach to Spelling.
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