Should Students Learn Sight Words?

I often get asked by teachers whether beginning readers need to learn sight words to become good readers.

The Purpose of School is to Learn to Read

After two days of kindergarten, my young daughter arrived home from school in a huff.  “Mom!” she announced, throwing her new backpack on the floor and crossing her arms. “Just when is my teacher going to teach us to read?”

My answer was “Well, learning to read is going to take some time but your teacher will help you learn to read. You just have to give it some time.”

She gave me a frown and stomped off to her bedroom to put on her play clothes – school fading from her mind. Clearly, my response that learning to read would take some time wasn’t the answer she wanted.

Like many young children who love being read to, in my daughter’s mind the purpose of going to school was be able to read her own books.  Since my husband and I had told her that an important purpose of school was to learn to read, she

Unfortunately, many children have not had enough experience with books during their preschool years to connect learning to read with going to school.

What is Needed to Learn to Read?

To learn to read, primary children have several foundational skills they need.

The first is to identify the names of the letters of the alphabet and at least one key sound that each letter makes. One of the first skills a beginning reader needs the understanding that letters are symbols that represent specific sounds in language.

After children can identify and link letters and their primary sounds,  beginning readers need to understand that groups of letters create a word that has meaning.

For example, some children know how to write their own names before coming to kindergarten. Others lack any sense of letter-sound relationships. Since this is a foundational understanding, you need to help these youngsters develop this important concept.

Children also learn these important concepts through explicit and direct instruction in phonemic awareness activities. Until children connect the relationship between letters and sounds, learning to read will be more difficult.

As children learn that letters form words, they connect with the idea that words are “talk” written down. Children need to connect the “word” they see to concepts and ideas that they can already express verbally.

What are Sight Words?

There is confusion about exactly what educators mean when they talk about sight words. Sometimes they are referring to “high-frequency words.”  These are words that are commonly found in everyday language and texts.

Edward Dolch and Edward Fry both identified “high frequency” word lists for educator use. Their lists include the most common words that elementary students see in grade-level texts. Many teachers use these lists with their students to introduce and help students identify these high-frequency words.

Other educators are referring to words that are not easily decodable. They say that these words must be memorized as “sight words” since they do not follow regular phonics rules. The words “said” and “some” are irregular words.

Some teachers argue that irregular words must be memorized and learned as sight words.

Young boy with a book sitting on a bench.
Learning that Books Can Be Delightful is Important to Beginning Readers

Why is it Important to Identify and Learn Sight Words?

Learning to decode words and connect them with meaning is a cognitively demanding process for beginning readers.

When children first learn to read, they are focused on decoding the text. This leaves them little cognitive energy left to make meaning out of the words mean.

According to Kuhn and Stahl (2003), fluency happens when readers parse sentences quickly enough so the brain understands the meaning.

Even fluent adult readers drop back to their decoding skills when they come across an unfamiliar word while reading.

As beginning readers, children need to develop both decoding and fluency skills. For this reason, building a bank of sight words helps.

According to Ehri (2005), visual memorization of words in isolation is not as effective. He recommends repeatedly seeing important words in context or paired with important concepts.

Ehri says that virtually all words commonly read have become sight words for proficient, adult readers. It is our instant word recognition that gives us meaning from the text we are reading.

As children develop strong decoding skills, it is also important that they interact with common sight words regularly.

As children recognize more sight words, their fluency improves. This helps them save more of their cognitive energy for meaning making and enjoying what they are reading.

Learning Sight Words Through Multiple Exposures

You can help students understand the concept of a “word” by using labels in the classroom and helping children see words over and over again in the classroom and playing with them in fun and engaging ways.

Have students watch you write down the words for stories they dictate. You can also post word cards with corresponding pictures around the room for children to see over and over again. You can call attention to these words and their meanings regularly.

Children should apply phonics skills to decoding. Point out the familiar patterns in words they see. Help children identify “C-A-T” by using onset and rime patterns. Help them also identify words such as: sat, mat, pat, and hat.

Use a pointer to read the words on a big book read aloud. Have students use word finger-pointing as they follow along as you read.

Provide students with manipulative tiles and ask them to physically replace letters to create new words they also understand. When children can identify important rime patterns, they are learning to improve their decoding skills.

Learn more about how to help students identify letters in the early grades in this post.

Learn some simple Dolch sight word games to help students learn sight words.

Teaching Beginning Reading to Young Children

Toddler laying on a bed reading a book with mother sitting nearby.

What is the Research on Teaching Beginning Reading?

Over the last 50 years, teaching beginning reading to young children has been the subject of much research and considerable controversy (i.e., “The Reading Wars”).

In the late 1990’s Congress convened the National Reading Panel and tasked them with identifying the most conclusive on reading instruction. The panel, made up of some of the top reading , evaluated a multitude of research and published their findings in the National Reading Panel Report in April, 2000.

The report cited 5 critical areas of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension and summarized effective teaching practices for each critical area of instruction.

Despite the passage of 22 years, little has changed in what researchers know about effective practices in teaching beginning reading. The National Reading Panel Report still contains the best practices for teaching beginning reading in the classroom.

 In 2019, the Deans for Impact organization reviewed the research data on beginning reading to learn more about how young children develop agency, numeracy, and literacy. 

This guide summarizes the most recent scientific knowledge about how children develop, learn to read and write proficiently and develop math skills. Here is a summary of what has been learned about the best instructional practices for teaching beginning reading.

Learning Alphabetic Principles

Children need to learn both letters and sounds in the English language to understand letter-sound relationships.

Letter sound relationships form the foundational understanding needed for fluent reading. Students need explicit instruction in letter-sound relationships to learn the sounds that letters and combinations of letters represent.  

Phonemic awareness skills help students understand how spoken sounds connect to letter symbols.

Children also need to understand the connection between spelling patterns and word pronunciations. This connection helps them decode printed words into words or word parts they already know through segmenting and blending.

Young female reading an Oxford Dictionary to learn new words.
Learning New Words Builds Stronger Understanding

Teaching Beginning Readers to Become Fluent Readers

Understanding phonics is a foundational skill for beginning readers and helps them become stronger readers. Phonics helps students understand how to decode new words.

By learning graphemes, students recognize patterns and can sound out, recognize and write more words. Phonics skills must be explicitly taught so that students can become fluent readers.

Reading with fluency requires automaticity. This means that students must be able to recognize word parts and words quickly and automatically as they read.

Beginning readers need to decode words quickly and efficiently. If children devote too much cognitive energy to decoding the words on the page, comprehension lapses.

This takes practice and training in segmenting and blending the graphemes of words.

Teaching Beginning Reading by Modeling with Read Alouds

Teachers can model fluent reading through daily read alouds. This helps children hear what proficient reading sounds like. It also gives children a feel for the “lilt” of the English language.

While reading aloud, teachers stop to call attention to essential elements in the passage. These elements include new vocabulary, punctuation markers, and unfamiliar word types in the passage.

Teachers might also ask students to summarize what as been read or answer a few higher level questions such as “Do you agree or disagree with Kat’s idea and why?”

Follow-up Activities for Teaching Beginning Reading

Re-reading is also a powerful follow-up activity to strengthen beginning reading. After listening to the teacher, students practice reading the same passage several times aloud.

Each time the passage is read, the student’s goal is to improve their performance. The teacher provides guidance and feedback to strengthen student reading success.

Explicit instruction on morphology (word parts) and word families build vocabulary and move beginning readers toward more automatic word reading and fluency.

As with any skill, practice – along with with guidance and feedback – improves the teaching of beginning reading. Give students access to books and reading materials as much as possible at school and at home.

Supporting a child’s intrinsic motivation by giving them fun and interesting materials is more likely to result in reading improvements than are extrinsic rewards or incentives.

The more children want to read and view reading as enjoyable, the quicker their reading skills will grow and develop as competent beginning readers.

Post Updated 10/01/2022

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30 Million Word Gap By Age 3

For many years, the conclusions of the “30 Million Word Gap” Study by Hart and Risley (1990) was foundational research pointing to the importance of preschool learning for student success.

However, during the last decade, their long-standing conclusions have been called into question by more recent research. Objections were voiced about the smallness of the sample size in the Hart and Risley study.

What was the 30 Million Word Gap?

In the 1990’s, Betty Hart and Todd Risley studied the amount of language heard in the home for children from birth to age 3. Their work studied 42 families from 3 different socioeconomic levels.

The objective of their study was to identify how much language each group of students heard in their respective homes during the preschool years.

The researchers tracked 13 wealthy, professional families, 10 middle-class families. The final group was 13 low-income families. In the low-income group, six of the families received public financial assistance from birth to age 3.

During their work, Hart and Risley gathered 1,300 hours of observational data about the language used with children in each home environment.

Their study tracked the type of oral language and vocabulary experiences that each child heard in the home during these critical early years.

The Findings of their Study

As of result of their work (published in 1995) Hart and Risley identified a 32 million word gap between the children from professional families and the children from low-income families.

Hart and Risley reported, “By the time the children were 3 years old, trends in amount of talk, vocabulary growth, and style of interaction were well established and clearly suggested widening gaps to come.”

According to their data analysis, by age 3, children living in professional families had a recorded vocabulary size of 1,116 words with 310 average utterances per hour.

Children in the working class families had a recorded vocabulary size of 749 words with 223 average utterances per hour.

Low income children had a recorded vocabulary size of only 525 words with only 168 utterances per hour.

Researcher Conclusions

Hart and Risley stated that their research explained why some children come to kindergarten with a wealth of literary experience and a strong vocabulary while others have a limited vocabulary and lag far behind their peers even from the first day of school.

The researchers concluded that, “a linear extrapolation from the averages in the observational data to a 100-hour week shows the average child in the professional family with 215,000 words of language experience.”

They noted that the average child in a working-class family heard 125,000 words. Children in the low-income and welfare family environment heard only 62,000 words of language experience. during the same time period.

In a year, this is a difference of 11.2 million words for the child living with professional parents while only 3.2 million words for a child living in a low-income family.

The difference over three years in words heard in the home would be 45 million words for the child in a professional family versus only 13 million words for the child living in a high poverty family.

Thus, they identified an estimated 30-32 million word gap between the different groups by age 3. Their findings impacted early childhood education efforts and spurred calls for substantial investment in early childhood education.

Conclusions Come into Question

Recent efforts by researchers Douglas Sperry, wife Linda Perry and Peggy Miller (2018) attempted to replicate Hart & Risley’s work to some degree.

While their study was not an exact replication of the Hart and Risley study, Sperry and colleagues in their study were not able to find any significant differences in the amount of language heard by children in different socioeconomic level families.

While Hart & Risley had live observers in the home, the Sperry study used a more unobtrusive recording system to capture talk that took place in each family.

One theory for the difference in outcomes of the two studies was that parents and children may respond differently when live observers are present in the home.

Sperry also theorized that the Hart and Risley word gap study may have had a cultural or racial bias that undervalued or misinterpreted speech activities in diverse families.

Questions Still Remain About Preschool Language Development

Since this time, several other researchers have studied different aspects of early language development and have defended the conclusions of the Hart and Risley study.

A 2017 study by Gilkerson and colleagues using automated recorders tucked into children’s clothing found some similar – but not identical – gaps in early language experiences as did the Hart and Risley study.

A sticking point, however, is that none of the studies conducted since 1995 used the exact same methodology as did Hart and Risley in their work.

Although some researchers criticize the Hart and Risley study because the small sample size, their work has not been entirely refuted.

More research is needed. We all need to understand why some children have a larger vocabulary when they reach kindergarten than do other children so we can address these word gaps.

Female baby reading a picture book.
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The Importance of Early Childhood Support Still Remains

There is little doubt that there are still vast inequities in American society and the education that children from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds receive.

While whether or not there is really a 30 million word gap between preschoolers coming into our classrooms, gaps in the word knowledge that children bring to school is still very clear for teachers.

Regardless of whether or not the Hart and Risley study had flaws, the importance of investing in early childhood education is still vitally important.

This is evidenced by many other studies on this topic as well as the success of the Perry Preschool participants. The program produced multi-generational effects on their young participants.

Children need support and the advantages that early learning can provide so they can come to the kindergarten door prepared for learning and success in life.

Learn more about effective reading instruction in my book: The Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development

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