Sight Words: A Cognitive Approach


(Part 2) of High Frequency Words to Sight Words

When planning targeted sight word instruction, we need to provide students opportunities to analyze the words.  The foundation will be the phoneme-grapheme relationship of each word. However, we also need to analyze sight words in light of their semantic meaning, spelling patterns, syllable type, morphemic parts, and etymology.  When these parts are paired with the phoneme-grapheme connections, we will create meaningful learning opportunities for our students.    

So, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions when introducing a new word.  Which parts are applicable and how can you support your students with these cognitive levels of processing?

When Do We Teach Sight Words?

Linnea Ehri breaks up the evolution of word reading development into 4 phases.  When students are at the Full Alphabetic stage (when they attend to every grapheme in a word and have solid phonemic awareness skills) they are ready to learn sight words.  Students will learn the most sight words when they are in the Consolidated phase (when they are able to decode in chunks).

So, be mindful of what your students’ brains are capable of. If we push sight word learning too early in their development, they might use compensatory strategies like memorizing the word as a visual image.  Visual memory is not reliable, and it will not help the student spell the word correctly. Instead, help your students build their phonemic awareness and letter-sound knowledge so that they are primed for effective sight word learning.

How Do I Provide Context for Words?

Many high frequency words are “function words.”  These words like been, does, and have do not carry significant meaning on their own.  So, after leading students through the expected and unexpected letter-sound correspondences, work with the word in a sentence or phrase.  Remember, part of the orthographic mapping process involves connecting the phonemes, graphemes, and meaning.  So, we need to provide contextual meaning and grammar in order for students to efficiently orthographically map the word. 

If we simply place sight words on the wall or on a flashcard, kids are not “doing” anything with them.  When we use flashcards, we encourage rote memorization.  There is no word analysis taking place.  Instead, we need to attach meaning to the abstract word and make it concrete.  By using the word in a sentence, we give students opportunities to “work” the words. Giving context to the word will help the student make sense of the word’s meaning.

**Important note here: Once your student has learned the word through pairing the phonemes to the graphemes and connecting to the meaning, he can practice them with flashcards.  We just don’t want to use flashcards as the initial teaching mechanism.

Does the Word Contain a Phonics rule/Spelling pattern?

Another consideration is analyzing a word for specific spelling patterns.  These patterns will help students grasp which parts of the word are unexpected or not “playing fair.”  For example, some may assume that has contains an unexpected part (the -s- saying /z/). But, if we teach our students that the grapheme -s- can sometimes represent the /z/ sound, then this will not be an irregular word or unexpected sound.

So, you may choose to hold off introducing some words until you teach the spelling patterns associated with it.  Or, you can describe those words as “irregular for now” or “unexpected for now.”  That leaves open the opportunity for you to teach the student the skill at a later time.

Can the Word be Rooted in Syllable Patterns?

Students need to be able to isolate and segment the phonemes in a word to orthographically map it. (A more in-depth description of this process can be found here).  So, it is understandable that shorter words may be easier for young learners to map. The shortest high frequency words are often open syllables like the word by. An open syllable has one vowel at the end of the syllable and the vowel is long. I encourage you teach syllable types, and specifically to teach open syllables early on. 

Kindergarten and first grade students will need to read/write many of these open syllable words. Consequently, once a student knows open syllables, words like by, me, and so are no longer “irregular” or “unexpected.”  By pre-teaching syllable types, we give the students an anchor for those long vowel spellings. Download the below chart HERE for a FREE list of high frequency words by syllable type!

High Frequency Words by Syllable Types to aid in the orthographic mapping of the words as sight words.

How Do Morphemes Inform Our Instruction of Sight Words?

Similar to teaching syllable types and spelling concepts, it can be very informative to teach the morphemic parts of a word.  Morphemes are the smallest units of language that hold meaning.  For our purposes, these include prefixes, roots/base words, and suffixes.  For example, if you teach students the three sounds of the suffix -ed (/id/, /d/, /t/), students will be able to more easily map high frequency words (like jumped). The same goes for a word like going.  Teach the student that the word is comprised of go + -ing. Then discuss how the suffix -ing affects the part of speech and meaning.

What is Etymology and How Can it Help with Sight Word Acquisition?

Etymology is the study of the history of a word.  Our language has evolved for thousands of years. During that time a word’s spelling and pronunciation changed many times over.  When scribes started to write down spoken words, they used letter-sound correspondences that mirrored pronunciations at that snapshot in time.  For some words in our current vocabulary, they retain the spelling and pronunciation of that time.  For others the spelling does not match our current pronunciation.

One example is the word have.  Many assume that this is a “rule breaker” word because the silent e is not making the -a- have a long vowel sound.  But there are 8 jobs of a silent e, and it is not always to make a preceding vowel long.  In the case of have, we can blame the silent e on the scribes mentioned above!  When they first started writing down words, they used the same character for the letter -u- as they did for the letter -v-.  So, to help the reader differentiate between which letter they read, scribes assigned a silent e to the end of words that ending in the /v/ sound. Teaching historical tidbits like this helps students conceptualize the word and reframe it into something that makes sense!  If you really want to dive deep with etymology, check out the amazing History of English podcast.

For a FREE version of the template below, click here.

I hope that you will consider these questions as you teach your students how to read and spell high frequency words.  In Part 3 of this blog post, I will discuss activities and games to reinforce the orthographic mapping of sight words.  So, stay tuned for Part 3 and I hope that your students enjoy “working” these words with you!

How to Teach (& Master!) Sight Words in 5 Minutes a Day!

If you want to learn even MORE about how to teach sight words and use them in context you will LOVE my sight words mini course. Take your instruction to a whole new level with a high frequency words scope and sequence, 190 no prep teaching templates, an easy to follow 3-step method, 22 sight words review activities, and explanations of the “why” behind all the irregular words. This is a course every teacher should take! Click here to learn more! 

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