Explaining Sight Words
Teaching sight words can be one of the more difficult tasks in lower elementary, but I am here to help. What are sight words? What are decodable words? Knowing the difference between the two will change how you teach. Let's learn the difference.
Sight words are words that must be taught by sight. These are words that students cannot decode. I recently saw a social media post of a parent trying to teach her child to sound out the word the. Well, if you are a teacher, you know that the is not a word we can sound out BUT if you are not in education you may not know this. So, sight words, for the purpose of this post, are words that students cannot sound out based on the phonemes they know or have been exposed to in their tier 1 (whole class instruction). For example, the sounds taught in Kindergarten are all sounds a-z, short and long vowels, then digraphs. Generally this is how far a Kindergarten class will get in whole group instruction.
Decodable words are just that. These are words that students can sound out. They are decodable because students can use the sounds they know to help them solve the new words they are seeing in their texts. In my classroom I start introducing letters and sounds on day 1. Yes, day 1 in kindergarten we are becoming familiar with our letters and their sounds. While this post is not about letters and sounds, I highly advise teaching them together and teaching them from the start! Once students have at least two consonants and a vowel we begin blending non-sense words. I will say, that at this point for 2/3 of my class this is most likely exposure, but it sure does start setting a foundation for the routines to come. As we add more sounds, we blend for longer and we start to notice words that are real and those that are nonsense. The words we know how to decode, we add them to our word wall.
I use a resource I created when distance learning began and using a blending board became too difficult online. I found that students were not focused on digital word tiles. I learned my students benefitted and retained more instruction when I was changing and flipping the sound cards, running my fingers left to right under words and sounding out alongside them daily in class. With consistent blending board practice I saw more and more results in my small group reading time. Students, even through the web, were beginning to do the work for themselves in breaking apart words and putting them back together to decode and encode. Just know, he more consistent sound practice students have, the more words they will begin to decode.
The wonderful result of consistent blending practice in phonics each day led to me teaching only about 30 true sight words. That means students truly need to learn in Kindergarten... Yes, I said it, there are about 30. In my tutoring sessions I refer to these words as "RULE BREAKERS" rule breakers break all the sound rules we know. We cannot sound these words out in our writing. Let me ask you: How many times have you sat in class and watch a student sound out the "du". Yes, you know what I am talking about. It is because we are not clear that this is a rule breaker they need to COMMIT to their memory! Here is the full list of RULE BREAKERS we learn in our classroom:
To reinforce these sight words, we transition from blending into sight word practice. It is important to practice saying, writing, and reading sight words daily until 85% of your class knows the word. I use the same set of sight words each day, they are on a ring, they sit in my teaching box at my mini work box. They are a tool that are essential to my instruction. Something I learned in distance learning is that writing is MORE challenging to monitor. Letter formation, spacing and writing in general is hard to teach. Save yourself heartache and model using the same resource that you want kids to use. That is to say ditch the digital activities and go back to live practice pencil and paper! While it may be a lot of wait time or staring into digital classroom boxes with students heads down working, but hands on practice in early primary is where it is at! I use a set of very simple materials with my kiddos that you can pick up on TpT.
So, if you take anything away from this blog post, decodable words are words with phonemes kids know through tier 1 instruction. Sight words are words that students need to know by sight because they cannot be solved using sounds. For students to have success with both in your classroom, for you to keep your sanity and students to reach reading goals, both explicit phoneme instruction must happen daily and sight words must be reviewed and taught daily with no exceptions until 85% of your students have mastery!
If you have any questions about any of this, reach out!