Tuesday, 15 March 2011

How we teach sight words

Sight words are very common words that efficient readers recognise instantly and automatically without having to resort to "sounding out" tricks used in phonics.  When we first embarked on a reading programme with Emily about three and a half months ago, we realised that Emily already knew a few nouns.  These were mainly words that interested her, such as "cake", "princess", "pink" and "dog".  However, she could recognise very few sight words and certainly could not recognise many important connective words like "of", "and", "the" and "for".   It soon became apparent that Emily had very little interest in these "boring" words. 

This lack of interest combined with a lack of guidance on non-phonics-based methods made the prospect of teaching sight words extremely daunting! I even went through a phase when I thought that I could rely on phonics alone, before quickly realising that a large percentage of commonly-used words cannot be read using phonics tools. 

My first attempt at teaching sight words was with Book 1a and 1b of the Peter and Jane Ladybird series.  Emily was bored to tears by the books and did not seem to learn any of the words featured in the books.  While I initially contemplated looking for other readers or shelving the whole idea of readers altogether, we eventually skipped Level 1 and moved to Book 2a, on the advice of another mum.  Thankfully, Emily seemed to enjoy Book 2a much more.  We had also made good progress with Letterland, which gave Emily more words to work with, and her progress took off from there. 

Over time, I have developed the following strategies for teaching sight words:
  1. Use flashcards - I don't accept that Emily has learnt a sight word until she passes the "flashcard test", i.e. she can identify the word when I show her a handwritten flashcard with the word on it.  I started using flashcards when I realised that very often, children have memorised a book or learnt to "read" words by putting them in context with the rest of a sentence.  By requiring Emily to pass the "flashcard test", I am assured that she recognises the word in isolation.  We use plain white blank cards from Popular and I write on these cards with a thick black marker pen.  We have two piles of flashcards - one for words that we're currently learning and playing games with and one for words which Emily already knows.  
  2. Make it relevant to the child - We play a variety of games to teach sight words.  For example, my mother came up with a role-playing game called Emily's Family Restaurant.  Emily has to walk around and take her "customers'" orders.  Depending on what is ordered, she has to write a tick next to the correct word on her order sheet.  This forces her to recognise words such as "water", "wine", "chicken", "pasta" and "pizza".  We also make mini-books with content that is relevant to her, such as a book about how she made a bear at the Build a Bear Workshop and a book about her activities for the week. 
  3. Be prepared to take drastic measures for problem words - Emily had difficulty learning the all-important word, "the".  I made different sized and different coloured flashcards featuring the word "the" and stuck these all over Emily's room and bathroom.  When she woke up, she saw a pink "the" card in front of her.  When she used the bathroom, she saw a green "the" card which I had pasted on the bathroom mirror.  When she opened her bedroom door to leave her room, there was a large "the" flashcard right in front of her.  It may seem excessive, but I can tell you that she learned to read the word "the" within 24 hours!  And we've seen the same success with other challenging words like "where", "little" and "one".   
  4. Peter and Jane - Despite a rocky start, we now use these readers at home at least two or three times a week.  Some useful resources on how to "teach" reading using Peter and Jane are available here and here.  I refuse to read the Peter and Jane books to Emily (as she has a superb memory, I am always fearful that she will memorise the text instead of learning to read it).  Instead, I make Emily read the books to me.  If she struggles with a particular word, I encourage her to "sound it out" (if possible) or I tell her the word and hope that she figures it out via repetition over time.  If a particular word is posing difficulty, I adopt the strategies outlined above.  During our reading sessions, if Emily starts to show disinterest or becomes distracted, I will usually offer to put the book away, which almost always causes her to sit up and try harder.  On occasion, I have asked one of her little teddy bears (his name is "DJ") to join our reading sessions.  I make DJ pretend to struggle with a word or a sentence, and this usually encourages Emily to participate by correcting DJ or helping him out with the word or sentence. 
  5. Variety, variety, variety - We're constantly trying out new games and activities to teach sight words.  We use Peter and Jane every few days and I also use Emily's flashcards from time to time to construct sentences for Emily to read.  Besides working through the Peter and Jane series, we are also working through the Dolch Sight Words list.
I'm happy to say that we've made significant progress in just three and a half months. 

This is a Level 3 book in the Peter and Jane series.
My aim was for Emily to be able to read simple books by the time Nicholas arrived, and I think she's just about there.  She can now read Levels 1-4 of Peter and Jane, and she can read about 50%-60% of Book 5a.  She can also read all the words in the Dolch Pre-Primer list and about 75% of the words in the Dolch Primer list. 

Our collection of Ladybird books
"Don't fix it if it ain't broke", they say, and we certainly plan to stick with what we've been doing and hope that we'll continue to make progress.

1 comment:

  1. Thing 1 wanted to know why Peter was wasting water! Wahaha!!!

    We're doing 4a & b now. I skipped buying the c series though....