What is a sight word? – It is a word that can be read on sight, the implication being without the need to decode it.
The concept was developed in the 1930s and 40s by Dr. Edward William Dolch in America, who analysed popular children’s books of the time to come up with a list of words for children to be taught to ‘read’ on sight i.e. without having to decode. The well-intentioned idea was to short-cut the sometimes lengthy process of learning to read, and thus quickly achieve fluency. His ideas have been long-lasting. They laid the foundations for the ‘whole word” or “whole language” methods of teaching reading and a quick Google search will confirm that Dolch and other similar sight word lists are still in widespread use, particularly in the U.S.
A more common situation in the UK today is the teaching of phonics alongside the teaching of ‘high frequency words’ as sight words, sometimes even if the sight words are easily decodable with only a basic grasp of the English ‘code’. This may be done very explicitly with, for example, words printed on flashcards presented for the child to learn. These are usually words from a ‘high frequency word’ list as mentioned or, much like Dolch’s idea, words extracted from the school’s reading scheme books e.g. Biff, Chip, Floppy etc. In other schools, the teaching of sight words is more ‘accidental’, with ‘tricky’*, or more advanced words being mis-presented as sight words (rather than harder-to-decode words) because the child hasn’t yet been taught to decode them.
The problem with teaching sight words as if they are a separate class of word is first of all, it leads to confusion and secondly, it is likely to have a long-term, detrimental effect on a substantial proportion of your most vulnerable readers.
It is confusing because children need to have one, just one, ‘word-attack’ strategy and that is to use their phonic knowledge to decode a word all the way through from left to right. The reason they should be taught this strategy is simply because it is the correct one; it is the one that represents how English works and is the one that will enable them to become the best reader they can be. Imagine yourself as a young learner faced with attempting to decipher text for the first time, and you are told something along the lines of:
“I am going to teach you to read. Some words are read by decoding and some are read by memorising how they look. You can’t tell which kind a word is just by looking at it, so you’ll simply have to guess which strategy to use, and sometimes, just guess what the word is”
But, far worse than confusion is the real damage that this can cause by giving children the idea (whether deliberately or inadvertently) that there are not one but two ways of reading; 1) decoding 2) memorising whole words as a picture or logograph. The problem is that for children who find learning phonics difficult this second ‘method’ may seem very attractive. It might well be much easier for them to read (initially) using this alternative strategy but unfortunately it is an ineffective method. Our brains are limited and can only store a few thousand such visual representations of words when many tens of thousands are needed to achieve a reasonable level of literacy. Perversely, children who become reliant on sight words and contextual guessing may seem, at first, to make faster progress that even the most able decoders, especially if the school still has reading books that are designed to encourage guessing and sight word memorisation. Most primary schools in the UK fall into this category. Sadly, children using such ‘compensatory strategies’ will eventually hit the buffers, and the only solution for them is to start all over again. But this time it’s even harder, by this time the class has moved on and they have spent three or more years on teaching their brain to tackle print in this ineffective way. By way of an analogy, if, like me, you are an inveterate two-finger typist who has occasionally tried to learn to type properly – the benefits being vastly increased speed and accuracy, you might appreciate how frustrating it is to try and break old habits in order to learn something new, especially when the whole process appears to impede you and slow you down. Needless to say, despite some months taking an actual typing class and attempts at using some expensive typing tutor software, I still type, as described by my aunt, as if my fingers were eagles soaring in the sky looking for prey to swoop upon. But typing is a skill I can get away with being less than competent in. Reading on the other hand is the key to accessing so much more whether it be for education, for information or just for pure pleasure.
Even just a small amount of sight word teaching can negatively affect the most vulnerable. Consider the ‘analytic’ method of teaching phonics. With analytic phonics children are first taught a bank of sight words which are later ‘analysed’ to see what phonic knowledge can be gleaned. In a study in Clackmannanshire (click here for full report) that compared analytic phonics with synthetic phonics it was found that this method seemed to confer long-lasting comparative disadvantage and only children who were first taught with analytic phonics needed further support:
“The two analytic phonics-taught groups then carried out the synthetic phonics programme, completing it by the end of Primary 1. In the meantime the initial synthetic phonics group consolidated their learning rather than moving on to learn new grapheme to phoneme correspondences. During the course of Primary 2 some children in the original analytic phonics-taught groups received extra help, but this was not necessary for the initial synthetic phonics-taught group.”
Of course, fluent, successful readers recognise many words instantly, but such ‘sight words’ should be acquired ‘naturally’ through repeated exposure, by which I mean repeated decoding. I know that teachers can get nervous when their young pupils are still sounding out, but the answer is time and practice. You can’t short-cut the process. The early result might superficially appear to be highly competent reading, but scratch beneath the surface and you will discover that there is no foundation to it that can take the child beyond a very limited reading ability. Yes, some very able children with a natural capacity for learning phonics would be able to progress, figuring out for themselves how English actually works (an analytic phonic approach of sorts) but they likely won’t read or spell as well as they might have, had they been properly taught in the first place but, even more importantly, a substantial number will be left behind, disheartened, disadvantaged and disenfranchised.
* A note on ‘tricky’ words
These are words that contain advanced code relative to the learner’s progression. For example, for a child in the first term of Reception, the word ‘like’ might be regarded as ‘tricky’. It is easily decodable to a child who knows about and has practised reading split digraphs such i-e, but it is tricky for a child who hasn’t got that far yet. For many reasons, you may want or have to introduce some words to your pupils before they have the decoding knowledge required. The temptation is to teach such words as sight words. Instead, I would simply introduce the word, explain the tricky bit and explain that it isn’t something they have learned yet.