Saturday, January 13, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Sight Words

I clearly remember my eldest daughter, Beth's, first sight word. Her four-year-old self was strapped into the back seat of our 1965 Mercury Monterey, as we approached the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue in Yardley, PA. From the back, Beth, ever the back seat driver, pointed to the red, hexagonal sign in front of us and yelled, "Stop!" I stopped the car, turned around in my seat and said, "Yes that sign says, Stop."

Now I know what you are thinking. Beth probably wasn't reading the word. She saw the sign, the red color, the shape and used her experience riding in a car before to know what the sign was communicating. All this is true. But what I would like to suggest is that the learning of all sight words is enhanced by context and that when readers struggle to acquire sight words, we might want to consider having them practice them in a real reading context.

The importance of sight words is well understood in the literacy field. Children need a goodly store of sight words in order to smoothly and fluently process text. They need to know many words by sight because so many frequently occurring words (of, was, any, they, said) are irregularly spelled. Sight words also provide an "anchor" for beginning readers learning one-to-one word correspondence in a line of print.

Understanding the critical nature of sight words, teachers use a variety of strategies to help children learn these words. Strategies such as Word Walls, flash cards, sand writing, magnetic letters, and word games like Wordo or Bang! You can read more about traditional sight word activities here.

These are all worthwhile activities when executed well. But it is also necessary for students to encounter these sight words in context. Context helps reinforce the rote learning of Word Walls and flash cards and also provides them with the support of real meaning as they attempt to solidify their perhaps shaky grasp of some sight words.

Contextual sight word activities should include the following.
  • Reading Patterned Books -Multiple readings of simple repetitive pattern books such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What So You See? or We're Going on a Bear Hunt.
  • Repeated Reading - Reading a book over and over again is good for all sorts of literacy learning, including reinforcing sight words. Short texts used for guided reading offer lots of opportunity for repeated reading in school and at home. Poetry also offers good sight word practice in short texts. 
  • Shared Reading and Shared Writing - Shared reading through big books and shared pen writing provide the teacher opportunities to target sight words that need to be reinforced.
  • Independent Reading and Writing - Time to read independently provides children time to practice sight words in context. Independent writing, with the assistance of the word wall or student word bank, provides opportunities to visualize the word and then reproduce that vision on the page with the word available for double checking.
  • Songs - The rhyme and rhythm of songs can help reinforce sight vocabulary. Children sing the songs with a copy of the lyrics in front of them. Just look at the rich store of sight words in one verse of this Raffi classic.
                        Down by the bay
                        Where the watermelons grow
                        Back to my home
                        I dare not go.
                        For if I do
                        My mother will say,
                        "Did you ever see a goose
                        Kissing a moose?"
                        Down by the bay.
  • Word Windows - I've adapted this strategy from an article by Carol Chomsky in Language Arts (1976), titled, "After Decoding, What?" In this strategy children read and reread a short passage or poem or nursery rhyme, until they can read it with ease (even to the point of memorization). The teacher then uses an index card, I use 4' by 6', with a rectangle "window" cut out of it large enough for one word of print to show. The teacher lays the card over the text, revealing one word. This one word is a targeted sight word. The child is asked to read the word. If the child can read the word, great. It is now a sight word. If the child can't read the word, the teacher raises the card and allows the child to read the passage and discover what the word is. Repeated uses of the activity help students truly look at sight words and hopefully commit them to visual memory.

One final (non-contextual) strategy for kids who really have a hard time getting sight words into visual memory - Disappearing Sight Words.
  1. Write the targeted word on a white board in dry-erase marker.* Let's use "said."
  2. Read the word together.
  3. Say the word slowly with the child without distorting the letter sounds: s-s-s-e-e-e-d-d-d.
  4. Have the child use an index finger to trace/erase the word while saying the word slowly.
  5. Repeat 2,3,4 times until the word is completely erased.
  6. Ask the child to try to write the word. (Provide assistance if they cannot.)
  7. Ask the child to read the word.
    * This also works with a regular chalkboard and chalk.
Credit for this strategy goes to Dr. Susan Glazer, late Director of The Reading/Writing Clinic at Rider University. The strategy obviously taps into a child's visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic senses in order to try to create a lasting mental image. 

If you are concerned that some of your students are not acquiring sight words quickly enough to support their growth as readers, I would suggest that you first take an inventory of your practices. Are you using the Word Wall effectively or has it just become another bulletin board in the room? Are the children getting enough contextual practice through repeated reading, and shared and independent reading and writing? This quick inventory may help you make adjustments that will lead to greater sight word success for your students.

This post is Part 3 in a series on struggling readers. You may also be interested in When Readers Struggle: Background Knowledge and When Readers Struggle: Oral Language.