The term "sight word" has different meanings depending upon one's philosophy of reading instruction. In today's public schools, though, if your child brings home a list of words with "Sight Words" printed at the top of it, you can bet that the teacher wants your child to memorize every word on the list, and usually learn to spell them too.

More than likely it's a list of short, high-frequency words, that is, words that appear very often in print. The justification for such a list is that a lot of the words cannot be easily decoded by a child. They are considered "phonetically irregular," or "difficult to sound out," or some other similar term. Your child is being told that he has to just learn to say those words quickly, i.e., "on sight," and the technique for learning them is usually by rote memorization, without considering the phonics information contained in the word.

The Problem: Kids Construct Their Own Mnemonics

A mnemonic is a memory device, a crutch if you will, such as "Roy G. Biv" for the colors of the rainbow. (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet))

When a child is given a sight-word list to memorize, without being taught the underlying phonics present in virtually every word, he is likely to construct his own mnemonic in many cases. I had a student say "then" instead of "when" one day and when I immediately pointed to "when" to indicate he's mispronounced it, he stared at it a full two seconds. Then he said "That is 'then'!" with considerable emphasis. He was convinced.

A split second later, he literally shook his head and said "when." Clearly, he had some unknown, and certainly unreliable, mnemonic for sorting those words out, one absolutely unrelated to their phonics content. And who is to say that that mnemonic wasn't stored in the comprehension section of the brain, thereby interfering with the story line every time he encountered those words, and probably many others as well?

Creating Sight Words the Phonetic Way

Obviously, the purpose of those sight word lists is to get kids to quickly recognize common words so they can read them fluently (and spell them too.) The best way to do that is to teach them the phonics structure found in every single one of them. Sure, that structure can, at times, be a bit messy. But most of the time, words like me, do and tie show up on a sight word list because they contain elements of the phonics code that hasn't been taught yet or, worst case, might never be taught at all.

Research on the brain has shown that there are two pathways for reading a word when phonics is taught. The first path, the dorsal one, is where the "laborious" decoding process takes place. The second is a much faster ventral pathway through the brain. Here's what is likely happening during that admittedly-laborious process of decoding, however.

Thereafter, when a child encounters that word in print its recognition bypasses the slower dorsal path and streaks down the ventral pathway instead

While that relatively slow decoding process is taking place down the dorsal path, synapses in the ventral path of the brain are reaching out, extending each time a particular word is decoded, until, one day, as a word is decoded down the slow dorsal path for the third, or fifth, or sixteenth time, the synapse for that word in the ventral path finally completes.

Thereafter, when a child encounters that word in print its recognition bypasses the slower dorsal path and streaks down the ventral pathway instead. At that point, a true sight word has been created. And from then on, the child will easily read that word. And all this happens without mnemonic crutches designed by five and six year olds seeking various ways to commit spellings to memory.

While the above description is theoretical in terms of the development of new synapses through the faster ventral pathway, it's the one obvious explanation of how that pathway develops. Brain research has demonstrated use of both pathways and we know how new synaptic connections are made in response to persistent and consistent stimuli. This is not to say, however, that other processes besides decoding are not at work in building the store of words that, when read, access the ventral pathway.

Incidentally, a good research question, of particular interest to those studying dyslexia, would be to ask what, if anything, can slow or prevent the development of those synapses in the ventral pathway that enable fluent reading?

What About True Sight Words?

There aren't any. A true sight word would be having to say "slam" when we saw this in print: "tbsz". Now that's a sight word. You'd simply have to memorize the letter string tbsz to read or spell the word that sounded like "slam."

Virtually every English word has significant phonics content in its spelling. What some words do also have, however, is an extraneous letter or two, or a letter that doesn't represent its normal sound. Here are some examples, along with the phonics content they do have and with the offending letter(s) underlined:

  • two - /t/oo/ (the "w" is not needed and needs to be memorized.)
  • answer - /a/n/s/er/ (Same as two, an unneeded "w")
  • . one - /w/o/n/ (The weirdest word, no "w" for the /w/ sound. The /n/ sound is spelled with the digraph ne.)
  • . once - /w/o/n/s/ (Second weirdest word, again no "w" for the /w/ sound. The /s/ sound is spelled with the digraph ce.)
  • said - /s/e/d/ (the "ai" digraph is the /ae/ sound, not the /e/ sound. It must be memorized when spelling said.)
  • says - /s/e/z/ (Like the word said, the "ay" digraph is the /ae/ sound, so the spelling of /e/ has to be memorized when spelling says.)
  • busy - /b/i/z/ee/ (The letter u represents several sounds that should be taught, but the /i/ sound is not one of them. That odd spelling of the /i/ sound in busy, business, and busily has to be memorized, but the rest of the spellings are fully explained by the phonics code.)

Spelling Aids for Extraneous or Misleading Letters and Digraphs

Most of the words on the typical sight word list sent home from school can be fully explained using the phonics code once it has been taught. Children are far better off having that code explained to them so that they can begin to build the path to immediate recognition of those words phonetically, instead of relying upon odd mnemonics they devise themselves at the ripe old age of six.

However, with adult guidance, introducing a mnemonic, or memory device, for some of those extraneous and misleading spellings can be very useful.

We can also take words like says and said and tie them to the word say by comparing "I say, he says, you said" using /ae/ sounds in every word, then pointing out that we really use the /e/ sound in two of them, probably because they're very common and we use them a lot and get a little sloppy with words that we use a lot. After all, we do say "I pay, he pays, you paid" retaining the /ae/ sound in each word.

The word two can be compared to twice and twin to help remember the "w" in two than we don't pronounce. And so on. But it's better that an adult creates a memorable phonetic mnemonic than that your child tries to come up with a non-phonetic one on his own, one that very likely could interfere with comprehension if it gets too complicated.

Forming a Perfect Pronunciation for Spelling

Most of the time, all that's needed is to say a sound mentally different than you're saying it orally. Although we say "coller" for that thing around our neck, for spelling purposes we're better off mentally thinking of it as coll-ar, the way it's spelled, with an /ar/ sound at the end.

The words a and the are good examples of forming a mental pronunciation. Sometimes a child will say the word a with an /ae/ sound, when they emphasis it, as in "Give me A cookie!" instead of using the /u/ we normally say. Similarly, they will finish a story with a strong "THE End," pronouncing the with an /ee/ sound instead of the /u/ we use in normal speech. Both of those points can be made for spelling purposes, and to explain why the phonics code applies to them too.

They can even be forced a bit. Mentally pronouncing the /w/ sounds in both answer and sword can reliably lock in the spelling even though we do say "anser" and "sord."

For that matter, how many adults spell the third day of their work week by saying "Wed-nes-day"? I'd wager most of you. That's just a phonetically-based mnemonic device we use to get all the letters into what sounds like Wensday, right?

So, What Does a Parent Do About Sight Word Lists?

They're actually a handy tool for determining if your school's reading curriculum has a good phonics component. Ask your child what he's thinking as he's spelling words like go and two. If he says the letter g is the /g/ sound and the letter o can be the /oe/ sound, you can probably relax. But if he says go is spelled GEE OH (using letter names) and two is TEE DOUBLE-U OH, you might want to get proactive and make sure your child is getting the phonics instruction that the research indicates will help him to become a fluent reader.

One way to do that is to take a look at the article How to Help Your Child Study His Sight Word List, then act to make sure he gets the phonics instruction he needs.