Our local school district still teaches “sight words.” I know that people mean various things when they call words “sight words” — words that kids don’t have the phonics principles for yet, words that are high-frequency, and words that “are not decodable.” I also understand that brain research says memorizing whole words is a poor practice, and I know that “sight words” is a term that is being phased out in order to communicate that 80% of words are decodable, and emphasizing helping kids flexibly solve words using the parts that do follow predictable phonics rules. Will you please weigh in?
I know of no brain research that shows memorizing words to be a bad practice. In fact, we don’t know what information is stored in the brain about words (rules, patterns, images of the words themselves?), so memorizing some words could be beneficial to the overall reading process. There certainly is research that shows sight word instruction contributes positively to fluency and comprehension (Griffin & Murtaugh, 2015), and it isn’t clear what role words themselves play in the development of orthographic mapping — only that they may play some role (Price, Mohr, & Price, 2018; Schmalz, Marinus, & Castles, 2013).
When it comes to sight vocabulary definitions, I’m in the camp that reserves that label to words the students can recognize seemingly instantaneously. Curricula or instructional intentions play no role in the matter. If a student recognizes a word immediately on sight, then it is a sight word no matter how or why that word was learned.
Sight words are like your best friends’ names. They are words that you know immediately with no hesitation.
Reading programs may fuzz this definition up a bit. They rather hopefully label words that they designate for direct instruction as sight words, as if the instructional success were a certainty already accomplished. As you point out, they may focus on high-frequency words, words that aren’t easily decoded, or words that they simply want to use in their stories. Those are all good reasons for trying to teach some words, but whether those words will become sight vocabulary has more to do with how they are taught or how much time is spent on them.
Naïve observation, behavioral research, and brain study concur that sight vocabulary is about memory (Berglund-Barraza Tian, Basak, & Evans, 2019; Joseph, Nation, & Liversedge, 2013). However, that shared insight leads to very different conclusions about teaching and learning.
Historically, the recognition that young readers benefit from knowing words was translated into graded word lists, flash cards, word drills, and special instructional texts with specific word repetition routines. Psychologists expended much effort trying to determine how many times a student had to see a word before it entered the sight vocabulary: rote repetition was imagined to be the most efficacious approach.
More recent study proposes more nuanced conclusions about what it takes to “memorize” a word.
We can, of course, memorize individual words through brute force paired associate repetition. The issue isn’t whether one can learn words that way, but whether it’s efficient enough for readers to master 40,000 sight words or whether it describes how readers gain the ability to read most words.
Anyone who has carefully monitored young children’s progress in learning to read notices a magical transformation. Initially, learning words seems to be mainly about rote memorization, but for those boys and girls who become readers, new sight words seem to accumulate almost effortlessly.
Students are doing more than remembering more words.
They seem to be learning how to learn words. When children are learning to read, they are learning how to remember words – how to organize them in memory, how to recognize them without decoding or with minimum of decodable effort. Linnea Ehri (2014, 2020) has best described this memory development process.
But if that is the case — and there are many good reasons to think that it is — then it makes sense to try to get words into memory through analysis rather than repetition alone (Hickey, 2007; Newman, Jared, & Haigh, 2012; Steacy, Fuchs, Gilbert, Kearns, Elleman, & Edwards, 2020; Stuart, Masterson, & Dixon, 2000). Memorization often focuses on trivial features (e.g., first letter alone, shape of the word) that may facilitate recall of a small set of words, but which do little to help organize these words into the word reading/spelling system that must develop. There is some evidence that memorized words are stored in memory differently than words that are learned through analysis (Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015), but this appears to be just an immediate effect as word memorization and analysis interact over time making it appear to be a much more fluid and flexible process (Barr, 1984-1975; Biemiller, 1970). [I suspect this Yoncheva study to be what you were referring to. It does show that initially upon learning we store memorized and analyzed words in different parts of the brain, but it says nothing about how words are learned best or what the long-term significance of those differences are. It is important to not try to read too much about learning into such studies.]
I think it makes sense to have students master some words early on — including high-frequency words, and those with exceptional spelling patterns. But such word instruction should focus attention on what it is that makes these words unique — their sequences of letters.
This is not outlandish, even with a language like English that has such complex spelling patterns. I’ve long called for first grade teachers to make sure kids can read the 100 most frequent words (and for second grade teachers to do the same with the first 300 words). How would focusing on sound-symbol relations facilitate the learning of these words?
My analysis of the 100 most frequent words (the Fry list) concludes that 55 of these words are entirely decodable — that is, all the orthographic features of these words match the most common pronunciations for letter combinations. Words like and, or, had, but, we, she, up, and will can easily be learned through beginning decoding instruction alone. Another 42 of these frequent words at least partially meet this criterion. Words like the, their, you, were, and his have elements that make them exceptional (that /e/ in the is kind of funky, as is the /ou/ in you, and the /s/ in his is a little strange too), but they also include conventional elements (there is nothing unusual about the /th/ in the, the /y/ in you, or the /h/ /i/ in his).
My advice on attempts to teach sight vocabulary
1. Provide beginning readers with a substantial decoding program that shows students how to use letters and spelling patterns for reading words.
2. When you are teaching spelling patterns make sure those high-frequency words are included in the instruction where relevant (e.g., if you are teaching the consonant digraph /th/, words like them, these, the, and their should be included in the examples or practice items).
3. Providing a small amount of direct instruction in some key words that you want students to master is very reasonable. (Experience tells me that as little as 5 minutes a day is enough for this part of a reading curriculum).
4. Words that you teach — either directly or through their inclusion in a decoding program — should receive frequent repetition both in isolation and context. I want kids to learn those patterns, of course, but also want them to know those exemplars.
5. Monitor learning to be sure students have mastered those highest frequency words because of their impact on fluency and comprehension (and the role they might play in anchoring decoding skills).
6. When teaching specific words, facilitate word learning by focusing student attention on the letter sequences, spelling, and decodability of the words. Such teaching reduces the numbers of repetitions needed to accomplish learning.
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