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How to teach sight words to young children

Sight words are important to teach to young children because in order to read fluently, that is, for one’s reading to be efficient and effective enough for one to gain meaning from it, it must be phrased and fluent. Phrasing comes from grouping the words in a sentence together the way one would in speech, with pauses, inflections and expression. Fluency refers to the pace of the reading.

Teaching children sight words is easiest when they are given fun ways to practice!
Image credit: <a href=''>wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

If a child is stopping to solve, or ‘sound out’ unknown words, reading too slowly or very quickly or without expression, it is likely he will not understand or remember what he has read.

As reading expert Anne Glass notes in the attached video, many sight words are not words that can be easily solved on the run. They are often words with exceptional spellings that do not follow the rules of phonics. Some teachers call them ‘rule-breakers’ to help their students understand that the letters in these words are not making the sounds that they are supposed to make.

Tips for teaching children new sight words:

  1. Model writing the word in front of the children
  2. Run your finger under the word slowly from left to right to encourage careful looking at all parts of the word
  3. Ask the children to be detectives while you repeat step 2, and to look for any ‘Rulebreakers’ (letters or combinations of letters that do not make sense phonetically)
  4. If you find a Rulebreaker, explain that Rulebreakers are the reason for learning some words really well at a glance!
  5. Have the children raise their writing hand and pointer finger up in the air and ‘skywrite’ the word along with you.
  6. Give the children opportunities to play with the word.

One way of remembering a word in all its detail is to be able to write it.

-Clay, p.40

Ways to play with and practice sight words:

  • Always provide a correct model of the proper spelling of a new word.
  • Provide magnetic letters for children to mix up, then reassemble into the word. This can be done on a chalkboard, white board, fridge, cookie sheet or any other magnetic surface. Tin lunch boxes are excellent for containing word cards and magnetic letters on the go.
  • Tracing activities are always fun, especially with different materials. Try glitter glue or gel pens, chalk on the driveway or school yard, or water and a clean paint brush on a variety of surfaces.
  • Cut the letters out of sandpaper and glue them onto a piece of card stock for a tactile, finger tracing activity.
  • Ask the child to trace the word in large letters with finger paint, or in play dough or plasticene.
  • Stamp the letters of the word with letter stampers, or potatoes cut into the shape of those letters.
  • Give the child a magnifying glass and a ‘spy hat’ or badge, and ask her to be a ‘Word Detective’ in one of her little books. Can she find today’s word? Can she find it in the room somewhere? Start a game of ‘I Spy’.

Once the children have a bank of multiple sight words, the opportunities for fun sight word memory games only increase. Write sight words on the circles in a Twister game and play Sight Word Twister. Sight Word Bingo games are available online and in many teacher stores as well (and are easy to make). A basic game of memory can be made with index cards and writing each word twice. For extra challenge, consider putting a capital letter on one version of the word. It is surprising how many children who can read ‘here’ and ‘the’ can not read ‘Here’ and ‘The’.

Teaching sight words to young children - saving the best tip for last

Keep it light, fun and motivating! Sight words can be taught in short lessons, teachable moments, practiced by making connections between them in reading and writing, and especially through games and fun activities!

Do you have a young child learning sight words? What motivates him or her?

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