When Should I Start Teaching Sight Words?

This is a common question parents and teachers ask, and although this answer is unpopular, I really want to respond with, “NEVER!”  Students should be able to sound out words before they are recognized by sight, so you never really teach sight words.  Sight words are developed by the child sounding out the same common words over and over again until they become known by sight.

So why do many early childhood teachers send sight word lists home and encourage students to learn them?  There could be many answers to this question, but I think it basically comes down to not knowing the latest research.  Many teachers teach the way they were taught in school so they perpetuate the practice.  By having young students memorize lists of words, they are unknowingly giving the impression that their students can read.  They hand over a progress report with a list or number of words learned in Kindergarten and are proud of themselves for teaching the young children how to read.  Caution: memorizing words is not reading!

In order to read, children must have the three basic skills for learning to read, as well as knowledge of our language’s written code. By teaching children to decode words rather than memorizing, we are teaching them how to attack an unlimited number of words.

The average child can memorize only about 2,000 to 3,000 words, enough to perform at about a first grade level.  By using other shortcuts like using pictures for clues or trying to guess the story line based on what just happened, the student can inadvertently fool his/her parents and teachers until the middle or end of second grade. Eventually the visual memory load will bottom out and all of a sudden the child has a reading problem.  Students begin to make mistakes with words that look alike. Students rely on guessing by looking at the first letter of a word and/or the shape of a word. For example horse and house.

It may seem like a great short-cut to have a child memorize a lot of sight words now but in the end the child would need to memorize 20,000 words that he/she will use in daily vocabulary.  Let’s see, 20,000 words or 134 sound pictures that represent the different sounds in English?  That’s a no-brainer right?  Let us teach children the 134 sound pictures and how to blend them together to form words instead.  Let’s teach them the tools they need rather than short-cuts that will catch up with them by the end of second grade.

In my experience as a Reading Therapist, I usually get the call for tutoring help from bewildered parents of third graders after the first parent-teacher conference.  “He was reading just fine all the way through last year.  I don’t know what’s happened!” They blame the teacher, the student for being lazy, or the distracting kid sitting next to him.  I blame sight word dependence.  Don’t let it happen to your child!

Ok, so now that you know why you should not teach your child sight words, let me give you a tiny exception.  (Pretend that this is in teeny tiny print)  There are a few common words in early childhood texts that do just need to be memorized.  I give you permission for only these two words for Pre-K through second grade readers: “one” and “two”.  Why these two and no others?  Well, they cannot be sounded out like all the other words young readers will encounter.  Only in the word “two” do we spell the sound /t/ with the letters T and W.  Further, the word “one” has several decoding issues:  1) It is a three sound word with a consonant, vowel, consonant pattern /w/, /u/, /n/ that follows a spelling pattern of vowel, consonant, vowel.  2) We do not spell the sound /w/ with the letter O, the sound /u/ with the letter N, etc.  How did theses two words get so confusing?  I’m sure there are etymologists that can explain how these words have changed since their origin but all we really need to explain to the student is that they just don’t follow the norm.  We just accept them as they are and move on.

Need to know how to teach your child the three skills for reading and the code knowledge?  I recommend the Phono-Graphix method.  There are several ways you can get the help you need from this method:  Buy the book READING REFLEX the Foolproof Phono-Graphix Method for Teaching Your Child to Read by Carmen McGuinness and Geoffrey McGuinness, or find a certified Phono-Graphix instructor near you, or enroll in the Reading Success Academy online course.   I welcome your questions and comments!

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