The Danger of Teaching “Sight Words”

I read a question from a parent yesterday (on “Classroom Talk”), asking how to help her child learn the long list of sight words that the first grade teacher gave her child. This is my response:

“Children in first grade should not be given lists of sight words to memorize. They should be learning to decode (sound out) and encode (write) regularly spelled words, NOT MEMORIZE THE VISUAL APPEARANCE OF WORDS.

First graders should be learning to identify the sounds in words they say and link letters to those sounds. This is called phoneme awareness and phonics, and these are the critical skills for becoming a good reader. Your first grader should read words like GO and SEE by knowing the sounds that those letters stand for, and sounding out the words. As he does this often, his brain will start to automatically recognize the words. This will enable him to sound out and read or write any regularly spelled word independently. He will not have to visually memorize lists of words, except for those few that are “outlaw words” (don’t follow the rules), and he should only tackle these after he’s mastered phoneme awareness and phonics.

If he is not learning phoneme awareness and phonics at school, teach him at home. Try asking him to read some nonsense words like MUN or SAF. If he can’t do this, ask his teacher whether she is teaching him to sound out words. If you want him to be a good reader in second grade, teach him these skills NOW yourself. There’s lots of good information on the web about how to become aware of the sounds in words and link those sounds to letters.”

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2 Responses to “ The Danger of Teaching “Sight Words” ”

  1. Penny says:

    What if you have a child who memorizes sight words easily? That child is on the autism spectrum. Any hints to work on phoneme awareness and phonics instead?

  2. Jeannine says:

    Thanks for your question.
    First find out if your child is memorizing the visual appearance of the word or is actually decoding.
    Sometimes children learn to use phonics almost invisibly. So show the child some nonsense words like MUN, BAF, ZIM, DIT, ETC and see if he can sound them out. If so, you have no worries. If not, then he may reach a point where he just can’t discriminate one word from another because there are so many that look the same.
    It’s hard to make suggestions for a child I haven’t seen.
    Why don’t you do the nonsense words test and then give me some more information.
    Good luck,

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