In many modern reading programs, the basic sounds are taught but then focus is shifted away from sounding words out based on the rules of English to “sight words.” These are words that 1. do not follow the normal rules of English OR 2. are so common that some educators feel they need to be memorized to enhance a child’s reading fluency.
There are words in English that do not follow the “rules” and do need to be memorized. However, we feel there is no need to memorize words that can be easily decoded just because they are “common.” When we shift our focus to sight words, we lose valuable opportunities to teach the real rules of English that will enable our students to become excellent readers, writers, and spellers. Common words that would typically be found on a sight word list but ARE decodable (they follow the rules of English) will become effortless for the reader with exposure and practice.
Now don’t get your sight word panties in a tizzy. I understand that taking a balanced approach to this hurdle is likely the practical way to go. Just use your judgement and understand the pros and cons of each focus.
HERE is a list of suggested sight words categorized by those that don’t follow the rules and those that do actually follow a rule. There are just over 50 words on this list and over half of them are governed by easy to learn rules which I have included next to each word. Sure, there are others. Find them! Teach them! To be completely honest, even most of the words on this list that I have called “rule breakers” are actually governed by obscure rules! (I’m sure I will hear about that from all you phonogram sticklers our there!) But since these words are common and the early reader will see them before they have the capacity to understand the technical rule, it’s helpful to teach these words as sight words and teach the rule later. OR you can always wait until a child is a bit older and more able to understand the rules that govern decoding.
HERE is a wonderful break down of how to organize one of the most popular sight word lists by the real rules of English–brought to you by All About Learning Press (scroll down the page a bit for the video)!
There are studies that show that intensive sight word memorization can cause dyslexic like behaviors. In fact, the neuroscience we now understand behind how phonics and sight words are processed in the brain strongly suggests that focusing on sight words is doing the student a huge disservice. If you are interested in the details of this debate, here are a few places you can learn more: The Phonics Page, Blend Phonics, and for the history buff–The War on Reading.
Watch this video for further discussion on sight words: