What is a Sight Word, Really?

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.

More than likely it's a list of short, high-frequency words, that is, words that appear very often in print. The prime 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: Every Word is a Sight Word

The main sight word lists circulating today were put together years ago by people who advocated a whole-word memorization approach to reading instruction. Just memorize every word you encounter and you'll be a great reader. The advocates of whole-word instruction have always criticized phonics programs for slowing children down, that is, for forcing them to "laboriously" (a favorite word) decode each and every word accurately, a process that "hinders" (another favorite word) their comprehension of the story they're reading.

But they're wrong on every count. Memorizing even a dozen words is difficult without utilizing the phonics information that virtually every English word possesses. Phonics advocates don't intend each word to be sounded out "laboriously" every time it's encountered; they expect a child to learn the word, and to base that learning on the phonetic structure of the word. Once learned, it becomes what even whole-word advocates would consider a sight word, i.e., the child knows it on sight, without having to decode it.

As for whether the process is "laborious" or not, rote memorization of hundreds of words is just a prelude to rote memorization of thousands of words. If you don't teach a child a strategy for decoding "sight words" like go and to, then how are they to ever develop a strategy for decoding government or together? Hint: These are the programs that tell a child to look for words within the word (like the to, get and her in together perhaps), and that then teach your child to recognize common prefixes and suffixes. Just memorize enough components and put them together becomes the strategy. Oh, and once you've figured a word out, memorize it so you don't have to go through that process again.

Earlier, I said they're wrong on every count. They are. They're wrong about whether it's easier to learn to read a word on sight by memorizing it, or by first analyzing its phonetic structure. They're also wrong about whether it hinders comprehension for children taught by whole-word methods are continually misreading similar words whereas the children familiar with phonics easily comprehend which word is which. Does your child confuse that with what, or there with where? That's the expected result of whole-word instruction via sight word lists.

They're also wrong about the process being "laborious." It's the whole-word reader who hits a wall in 2nd or 3rd grade when the number of words that require memorization finally exceeds their memory capacity. From that point on, many just guess at unfamiliar words, filling in something that seems to fit the context. Within the context of a story, house and home are interchangeable; without context, so are house and horse. Inside the word, the letters just don't matter much. After all, they weren't taught to use them.

What Do You Do When that First Sight-Word List Comes Home?

Well, you might consider using the list to teach the phonics code. To do that, just use the OnTrack Reading Phonogram Set. It's available here as a set of flash cards. You don't even have to purchase them if you want to go to the work of writing them all down, since they can all be seen by clicking "Preview" under the picture.

To illustrate, I'll use the first 10 words of the Ayres List. They are me, do, and, go, at, on, a, it, is, and she. Each of these is on one of the first few sight word lists your child will bring home.

me: (/m/ee/) Take cards number 16 (m) and 10 (e) and teach their content. Chances are your child already knows the sound of the phonogram m, and might even know the /e/ sound for the phonogram e. Just teach him that the phonogram e is /e/ee/. Then show him me and write a 2 over the e. Then have him write me, saying /m/ as he writes the m and /ee/ as he writes the e. If he can't remember how to spell the /ee/ sound, tell him that in the word me, he should use the phonogram he learned as /e/ee/. When he's written me, have him put a 2 over the e to remind him its the second sound of the phonogram e.

do: (/d/oo/) Take cards number 18 (p) and 6 (o) and again teach their content. It might take a few attempts to teach the three sounds of the phonogram o, but the effort will pay off handsomely in the end. Once your child can respond /o/oe/oo/ when seeing the phonogram o, show him do and write the number 3 over the o to designate the third sound, /oo/. Then, as before, have him spell do, saying each sound as he writes each phonogram. If he needs it, tell him to use the phonogram for /oo/ that he just learned as /o/oe/oo/ and again have him put a 3 over the phonogram o to indicate that he used the third sound when spelling do.

and: (/a/n/d/) Take cards number 1 (a) and 17 (n) and teach their sounds. Your child might already know the first sound of both phonograms, but teach them anyway. Then show him and while pointing out that the /a/ sound is spelled with the phonogram he learned as /a/ae/o/, the second is spelled with the phonogram he learned as /n/ng/, and the last is spelled with the phonogram he learned as /d/. Add that no numbers are needed because he used the first sound of every phonogram.

go: (/g/oe/) Get card number 5 (g) and teach it's two sounds, /g/j/. He might already know that it's /g/, but make sure he knows both sounds. Then show him go and write a 2 above the o and tell him we use the phonogram /o/oe/oo/ when spelling go. Repeat the process of having him spell the word go himself and putting the number 2 above the phonogram o.

at: (/a/t/) Get card number 20 (t) and make sure your child knows it as the /t/ sound. The show him at and explain that it uses the the /a/ae/o/ phonogram to spell /a/, and the /t/ phonogram to spell /t/. Because only the first sounds of the phonograms are used, no numbers are needed. Repeat the spelling process described for the earlier words.

on: (o/n) Get no new cards. This is where the payoff begins. Just write on and tell him we use the phonogram for /o/oe/oo/ to write the /o/ sound and the phonogram for /n/ng/ to write the /n/ sound. They're both first sounds of the phonogram, so no numbers are needed. Have him spell on, making sure he's saying both sounds as he writes the phonograms. 

a: (/ae/) Again, no new cards are needed. However, be sure to teach the word a as the second sound of the phonogram a. You can illustrate by using the word a with emphasis, saying something like "Give me A break!" as an example that we should associate the /ae/ sound with the word a. You can also explain that most of the time we say /u/, like "a car, a dog," etc., but that he should always think of it as the /ae/ sound for spelling. Write a and don't forget to put the number 2 above it, telling him it's spelled with the phonogram /a/ae/o/.

it: (/i/t/) Get card number 12 (i) and teach your child that it's /i/ie/ee/, and then repeat the process you've done above. No numbers are needed, since it uses the first sound of each phonogram.

is: (/i/z/) Get card number 7 (s) and teach your child that it's /s/z/. You might want to illustrate a few cases where it sounds like /z/ in words, like at the end of has, his, and pens. When you spell is place a 2 above the s. Then have your child spell is and mark it with the 2 above the phonogram s.

she: (/sh/ee/) Get card number 27 (sh) and teach it as the /sh/ sound. Explain that sometimes we use two letters together to spell a sound and that we call that a digraph. Write she, underlining the phonogram sh and writing a 2 over the e. Explain that we underline any digraphs in a word with a single underline. Then have him write the word. Make sure your child is saying /sh/ just once as he writes the phonogram sh and that after writing she, he goes back and underlines the digraph sh and puts a 2 above the  phonogram e.

Note: The reason to mark the word after writing it completely is so that your child doesn't develop a habit of marking as he goes. After all, if all those markings show up on a spelling test, the words might be marked as incorrectly spelled. Explain that you are having him mark the words only once, at home, so that he can understand their spellings. He should not be marking words in a spelling test. 

Summing Up So Far

What have you taught so far? If you add them up, you've taught the sounds for 11 phonograms. There are 84 in the complete set, many of them far simpler than the phonograms you've just taught, like a, o, i, and n, and you're already over 10 percent of the way to teaching the complete set. 

You've also taught a solid foundation for ten words. If you'd have taught them sight words to be simply memorized, you'd be just 4 percent of the way through a list of common sight words, and have established no foundation for learning any of them. Furthermore, there's thousands more words that your child must learn to read on sight over the next few years. 

As you go through the next 10 words on the Ayres List, you'll need to teach fewer and fewer new phonograms. For example here are the next ten words and the new phonograms required to teach them: can (c), see (ee), run (r and u), the (th), in (none), so (none), no (none), now (ow), man (none), and ten (none). That's six new phonograms for those ten words. 

So, What's a Sight Word, Really?

Notice that every single one of the first twenty words in the Ayres List is can be completely explained by referring to the common sounds associated with each of the phonograms. In other words, there isn't a single sight word among them. Of course your child should learn to read them all by sight and he will. He will just find it far easier to do so when he knows the phonics information contained within the spelling of each word. 

Furthermore, armed with that phonics knowledge, he'll be able to extend it to read dozens, even hundreds, of new words almost immediately. When the next list comes home containing words like am, an, we, bed, us, and last, he'll easily understand each of them, and will quickly learn to say them on sight, because he already knows the phonics code in all of them.

However, there are words, many of them quite common, that do contain some irregular, or unusual, spellings. The spellings in those words are so unusual that there is no value in teaching them as phonograms for the particular sound they represent, or even sometimes as phonograms at all.

The Double-Underline

The OnTrack Reading marking system treats unusual spellings by double-underlining them. If it's an extraneous letter that appears randomly in the word, the double-underline just indicates that the letter represents no sound and can be ignored for pronunciation purposes, but must be remembered for spelling purposes.

On the other hand, if the spelling is an accepted phonogram, but represents an unusual sound in a particular word, then the phonogram is double-underlined and the sound it is representing is written under the word (using the notation described here.)

Rather than use random examples to illustrate the use of the double-underline convention, here are all of the words in the first 100 words of the Ayres List that require a double-underline:

of: Teach it as /o/v/, using the /o/ sound even though we tend to say "uv." Double-underline the phonogram f and write "v" under the lines.

are: Underline the phonogram ar indicating a digraph. Double-underline the phonogram e to indicate that it's an extraneous letter that must be remembered.

door: Double underline the phonogram oo indicating a digraph and write "oe" under it to denote the /oe/ sound. 

floor: Same as door. If there were a lot more words like door and floor where the phonogram oo represents the /oe/ sound, it wold be taught as /oo/oul/oe/, but there aren't so the /oe/ sound is treated as an unusual sound for that phonogram.

one: Teach it as /w/o/n/ with the ne phonogram underlined as a digraph for the /n/ sound. This is one of the weirdest English words (along with once) because it has a sound (/w/) without a phonogram to represent it. To mark it, double-underline the space in front of the word, and write "w" under the lines.

This takes us through about the first 120 words of the Ayres List and so far we have exactly five words that require double-underlining somewhere within the word. Even in those cases, there is obviously reliable phonics information contained within each of the five words. 

We can now go through to about word 340 without requiring another case of double-underlining, at which point we hit the word eye. Now the word eye is probably one of the "sight words" most aggressively taught due to the apparent need to memorize every component of the word. (Most teachers probably draw a couple of e's as eyes and then put the "y" between them as a nose, add a circle around the whole thing for a face, then add a mouth and ears. Trust me, this works. I worked with nearly 200 struggling readers, kids who were always misreading simple words, but nearly every one of them could read eye on sight. 

But is there phonetic information in eye? If you compare it to words like bye, dye, lye, and rye, each of which contain a phonogram ye that represents the /ie/ sound, then you could, and should, mark the word eye as follows: Double-underline the e at the beginning to indicate an extraneous letter and single-underline the phonogram ye as a digraph that represents the /ie/ sound. As with other words containing double-underlines, this is a signal that the letter e must be remembered when spelling eye.

Note: The phonogram ye occurs infrequently enough that, while it is indeed a phonogram, it isn't included in the 84-phonogram set that is formally taught. A number of phonograms are explained as they are encountered later, such as this one. Doubled consonants like bb and dd also aren't included in the 84 phonograms formally taught; they are just explained as common spellings of the /b/ and /d/ sound when they are first encountered. Your child should already know the sound of the single phonograms b and d by that time that occurs.

Conclusion

You can let the public school system teach your child sight words if you wish, but your child will then be getting the very mixed, and misleading, message that some words are just not decodable and need to be memorized without regard to their phonetic content.

Or, if the above discussion has convinced you that all words have at least some phonetic structure to them, and that very few are actually irregular at all, provided the phonics code is properly taught, then you should consider teaching that structure to your child yourself, at home. Doing so will pay huge dividends if you can pull it off. And later, if you really want to create an advanced reader, consider teaching your child the OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method for decoding longer words. 

One last comment: As your child begins to learn short, simple words encourage him to write short sentences using the words learned so far. That's one advantage of learning to read and spell the high-frequency words, and you might as well make the most use of it. These can be as simple as leaving each other notes around the house, with your child reading your notes while writing some of his own.