what are sight words?

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As we have seen, the ability to decode words is crucial to reading, but there are still some words that are worth learning whole because of how common they are. For example, some high-frequency words cannot be “sounded out” in the usual way using phoneme-grapheme correspondences.

In these cases, what you see is not what you hear -- so knowledge of letter-to-sound correspondences (phonics) will not help you decode the word.

Literacy experts recommend that a small number of irregularly spelled words, such as the or put, be taught as “sight words”. Children should learn these words to automaticity, and they should be able to discuss which letters are “not doing what they should be doing”. In other words, children should still employ their knowledge of phoneme-grapheme correspondences even when they are learning sight words. For example, in put, u doesn’t make the more common sound that it makes in cut and mud, which children will learn to associate with the letter u first. Learning high frequency words by sight leaves the brain free to decode less frequent words and develop overall text comprehension. But the number of high frequency words a child learns by sight should not exceed 200-300, as decoding using phoneme-grapheme correspondences should always be the primary tool children employ for reading.

Words are divided into three categories: regular, temporarily irregular, and permanently irregular. In regular words, such as cup or napkin, all the letters make their most basic and common sound and can be sounded out easily. Temporarily irregular words are words that seem irregular until children have been taught the relevant letter-sound correspondences; for example, "push" may seem irregular at first glance, but as soon as a child learns that u can also make a short 'oo' sound, it becomes regular. A word that is permanently irregular, such as laugh, will never have a one-to-one correspondence between the letters and sounds, because the sound that ‘au’ makes in this case is not a regular one. Such words are therefore easier to learn by sight.

Irregular sight words such as was, put, and laugh cannot be decoded like other words. Instead, they need to be learned by sight.

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Deep Dive

Learning the alphabet is the first step on every child’s reading journey. Research shows that children with prior knowledge of the alphabet learn to read more easily and more fluently, so it’s vitally important that the alphabet is taught in a playful and engaging way.

When learning their ABCs, children have to understand that each letter has a different shape and name, and that letters combine to form words. By making it clear that the letter A is not just for apple but also for avocado, children learn that A makes a constant sound across different words. Learning the most common sound that each letter makes is an essential, foundational skill that will be built on later when children encounter phonics.

Read our report, A Deep Dive Into Phonics, for more!


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