Sight words: A Template for Teaching

Part 1: How to Teach High Frequency Words & Irregular Words to become Sight Words

There is a lot of discussion about sight words and high frequency words.  I want to briefly go over these terms because there is a lot of confusion between the terms used in research and the same terms used in practice.

Sight words– any words read automatically.  These can be regular words or irregular words.

Decodable– You use phonic decoding skills to sound out the letter-sound correspondences.

High Frequency Words– these are words that are frequently found in text. They can be sight words, irregular, regular and/or decodable!

Regular words– follow reliable letter-sound correspondences like big.

Irregular words– have one or more letter-sound correspondences that do not follow the expected pattern.  For example, the /u/ sound of the <o> in from.

Orthographic Mapping and Sight Words

Orthographic mapping is the cognitive process by which we connect the individual speech sounds (phonemes) in a word’s pronunciation to the letters (graphemes) in the spellings of that word.  It also instantly connects the pronunciation to the word’s meaning.  This process is applied when words are read AND spelled, and it is this connection-forming process that secures spellings in memory.  It enables students to read words by sight and to spell them.  This is the most substantiated theory in how we memorize words for automatic retrieval.  It is backed by decades of research, and you can read more about it in detail in my previous blog post on orthographic mapping

Knowledge of the phoneme-grapheme system is what glues it all together.  The meaning also helps secure the spelling and pronunciation. So, we need to analyze the relationship between the sounds and letters to master this phoneme-grapheme connection. If we do this over and over, the word will get orthographically mapped.  Some students require only 1-4 exposures, and others may need a hundred exposures.

The goal is for ALL words to be orthographically mapped so that we can read them automatically.  Specifically, we want all words (high frequency words, irregular words, regular words, etc.) to become SIGHT WORDS!

A Template for Teaching Regular Words

For many students (and especially students who struggle with reading and spelling), using flashcards to learn HFWs will be a futile an inefficient task. To orthographically map, we need to first start with the phonemes (speech sounds), match the individual phonemes to the letters (graphemes) that represent each sound, analyze all the graphemes in a word, and use the word in context.

I recommend using Elkonin boxes for ALL words.  You can follow the steps below to directly teach ANY word to become a sight word!  You can:

-Draw a simple Elkonin box on any surface

-Download this FREE Sight Word Template

-Check out my Sight Words: Orthographic Mapping of High Frequency Words (a 440-page orthographic mapping resource of all Pre-K through 2nd grade Dolch sight words).

With any Elkonin box you use, place manipulatives for each phoneme on the top row and on the bottom row, write the graphemes that represent each phoneme. Remember that each GRAPHEME goes in a box, not each letter.  

  1. Teacher says the word aloud.
  2. Student repeats the word.
  3. Student taps out each PHONEME in the word.
  4. Student places a marker or draws a dot in a gray box for each PHONEME.
  5. Student writes the graphemes below each phoneme box to spell the word.
  6. Student reads the word aloud three times.
  7. Student uses the word in a sentence (orally or written).

A Template for Teaching Irregular Words

Our brain maps irregular words the same way we map regular words, so our approach is very similar! I think it is kid-friendly to say that the irregular part is “not playing fair” or is “not expected.”  Sometimes if we describe a word as “tricky” kids will immediately shut down.  So, let’s keep them engaged with the language we use to describe these words.  We are going to give them strategies to work with the fair parts and the unfair parts!

Often it is the vowels that account for the irregular or “unfair” parts of words.  So, use the consonants as “anchors” for decoding.  Only a handful of words (like of) contain all irregular phoneme-grapheme correspondences.  So, encourage your students to find the anchoring sounds that DO play fair to help them decode and map the words. 

  1. Teacher says the word aloud.
  2. Student repeats the word.
  3. Student taps out each PHONEME in the word.
  4. Student places a marker or draws a dot in a gray box for each PHONEME.
  5. Teacher leads the student to each “anchoring” phoneme-grapheme correspondence first.  Student writes the anchoring graphemes below those phoneme boxes.  Student underlines those graphemes.
  6. Next, the teacher leads the student to the irregular/unexpected phoneme-grapheme correspondence.  Student writes the grapheme below that phoneme box.  Student highlights or puts a heart around the irregular grapheme.
  7. Student reads the word aloud three times.
  8. Student uses the word in a sentence (orally or written).

**NOTE: The teacher may choose to introduce each grapheme in left-to-right order instead of the anchoring graphemes first.

Sight Word Instruction with Elkonin Boxes

Some people use hearts to remind themselves that one part of the spelling needs to be learned “by heart.”  Although there is no magic or research behind the heart, it can still be a wonderful visual reminder!  You can highlight the irregular part, circle it, heart it, etc.  Just choose one and be consistent.  The point is to use a visual cue to bring the student’s attention to the irregular part of the word.

What is Next?

We want our students to connect speech to print and to isolate the irregular part of the word. If you are a classroom teacher, do you see how you can shift your instruction with these simple steps?? It only takes a few minutes, and the reward is so worth it!

I hope that you will follow my blog and stay tuned for Part 2 of this Sight Word post: How to go beyond the sound-symbol relationship to orthographically map those high frequency words without clear meanings (like does, been, and for)!!

For pre-printed, NO PREP sight word templates, check out my Sight Words: Orthographic Mapping of High Frequency Words

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