Teaching sight words encourages the bad habit of memorizing whole words.
Virtually all educators now agree that the most effective way to teach reading is to teach children phonics. But many still include the practice of teaching “sight words” in their classrooms.
What is a “sight word?”
A sight word is a word that cannot be decoded through letter sound relationships. If a child needs to know a common word in order to comprehend what they are reading, but a given word is not possible to sound out, they are taught to memorize the word and recognize it on sight. However, it turns out that almost every word is actually decodable, and many words that are commonly thought to be sight words are not sight words at all.
Let’s take a look at a common word that many people mistakenly believe is undecodable and should be taught as a sight word: the word “was”.
When teaching phonics, we tell kids to say “aaa” for the letter A and “sss” for the letter S. But in the word “was”, the letter A sounds like “uh” and S sounds like “zzz”. This is why so many people think that kids will not be able to sound out the word “was”.
But kids are so much smarter than we give them credit for!
Whenever I ask a child to sound out the word “was”, they say “www…aaa…sss…wasss”, just like proponents of sight word teaching expect them to. But then, something amazing happens. They quickly recognize that the word is “was” and correct their pronunciation.
It is true that proficient readers eventually memorize and instantly recognize words. This memorization and rapid identification speeds up reading so that good readers have a greater desire to read, more enjoyment during reading, and greater reading comprehension. It is therefore good practice to encourage a child to consciously memorize common words—but only after decoding them.
The best way to teach sight words in reading education is analogous to teaching mental math in math education. When teaching addition or multiplication, it is very important not to skip tactile methods like counting blocks, beads, and fingers in favour of memorizing sums and times tables. A child learning to compute five plus seven should count all twelve blocks. Although the use of counting blocks is slow, it allows a child to fully grasp how addition works. Once they understand this, they will naturally begin memorizing simple facts of addition (such as the fact that 5+7=12).
In the same way, we should never skip phonics instruction. Always teach your kids to sound out words first—even “sight words”—before memorizing them.
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