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Basics: Sight Words and Orthographic Mapping

Words that you can read instantly are called sight words. Orthographic mapping is the process of storing a word permanently in memory for instant retrieval — and key to effortless, accurate, and fluent reading.

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When you looked at the words on this page, chances are strong that you automatically and effortlessly read without sounding out each word. Words that you read instantly (Ehri, 1992) are called sight words. Reading words without sounding them out means we have more time and resources to bring towards understanding what we read.

Orthographic mapping

How do students go from sounding out every printed word to knowing sight words? The process of storing a word permanently in memory for instant retrieval is called orthographic mapping (Ehri, 2014, Kilpatrick, 2015). Research suggests that we scan every single letter of every word we read. Our brains use what we know about  letter-sound relationships plus our awareness of speech sounds to map letter patterns and words together as units. These units are stored in long-term memory.

So how do children turn a printed word into a sight word? Creating a sight word involves forming permanent connections between a word’s letters, its pronunciation, and its meaning in memory (Perfetti, 1992; Rack, Hulme, Snowling, & Wightman, 1994). To read a word, a connection between a word’s spelling and letter-sounds is key (Ehri, 1992, 1998). A reader must notice the sequence of letters or spelling, pronounce the word, map the spoken sounds to the letters through reading and writing the word a few times to secure it in memory. This process of orthographic mapping (Ehri, 2014; Kilpatrick, 2015)  forms the “glue” that bonds words in memory. Once a reader has a strong alphabetic mapping “system” in place — sight word learning will occur quickly and easily.

sight words diagram

Sight words vs. high-frequency words

Sight words are sometimes confused with high-frequency words. High-frequency words are lists of words that occur often in printed English texts. A sight word can be any word, including high-frequency words!

The most common high-frequency words, or about 100 words, account for approximately 50% of the words used in school and colleges (Zeno et al., 1995). About 25% of these words are irregular words. Since they appear often in text, it’s important for comprehension to understand them. Many high-frequency words are also function words like articles (the), prepositions (of, from), pronouns (their, whom), and conjunctions that “glue” sentences together to guide the reader.

Many schools require students to learn specific lists of high-frequency words as a system to promote sight words. Unfortunately, the practice of memorizing lists of words will not lead to a sight word vocabulary if it is not paired with the teaching of phonics and phonemic awareness.

Many high-frequency word lists contain words with irregular spelling patterns that cannot be easily decoded by students, e.g., the ‘a’ in was or the ‘er’ in there. These words have a sound or spelling pattern that is either irregular or temporarily irregular, if the student simply has not been taught a specific sound or pattern yet. These irregular parts of a word cannot be predicted by sounding them out (Carnine et al, 2006). Words that have unpredictable features are called  irregular words. The good news is that most words only have one or two letters at most that are irregular. Children can rely on phonics to decode most of the word and commit to memory the irregular letter/letters. Skilled readers may require a minimum of one to four practices or exposures to commit an irregular word to memory (Reitsma, 1983).

How do I know if my school uses high-frequency words?

Three commonly used high-frequency word lists in schools include:

  • Dolch Basic Sight Vocabulary (1936)
  • 1000 Instant Words (Fry, 2004)
  • Educator’s Word Frequency Guide (Zeno et al., 1995) 

Keep in mind that older lists, such as the Dolch list, may not have been revised for many years. If your school requires a high-frequency word list, try to use the most updated list available.

Carnine et al (2006) recommend monitoring the progress for at- or above-grade level students every 4-6 weeks, and every two weeks for students slightly below grade level. Struggling readers well below grade level should be monitored more closely, at least once a week. To monitor word learning, ask the students to read from a set of previously taught words (Honig et al, 2018) and keep a record of any missed words or words that students must sound out.

When you are assessing high-frequency words for mastery remember to consider the following:

  • Can the student read the word accurately and quickly?
  • Can the student read the word in isolation?
  • Can the student read the word in context?
  • Can the student spell the word accurately and quickly?

Promoting word learning

After assessing students’ word knowledge, systematically introduce and teach a few words at a time. Honig et al (2018) offer these tips for teaching words to students:

  • Introduce high-frequency words before low-frequency ones.
  • Do not introduce too many words at one time.
  • Introduce new words in isolation before seeing them in texts. 
  • Point out the regular parts of a word where letter-sounds follow expected patterns. Draw special attention to the “irregular parts” of the word.
  • Offer daily cumulative review of previously taught words.
  • Provide opportunities for students to read, write, and build words both in and out of context.

Irregular words lesson

From the University of Florida Literacy Institute (UFLI) Virtual Teaching Resource Hub.

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