One of the constants in classrooms across the country is the sight word list. Every teacher has a list and one of her important tasks is to get her children to learn all the words on the list. I remember paying a lot of attention to sight word acquisition when I was in the classroom; after all, we had testing every quarter and a big component of each test was sight word recognition. The children who had become very fluent in instantly being able to call the words as they flashed before their eyes scored highest on their testing. Those children who preferred to think a bit, to make sure they were saying the right word, or who needed to look for clues to help them remember, well, they scored lower. At any rate, it was something we all focused on quite a bit.
Focus on sight word recognition
In my classroom, we used SnapWords™ - the colorful, stylized high frequency words we now have available to share with the world. Back then, I printed them off my printer and laboriously cut them apart, laminated them, put them on a book ring, and put them out for the children to use. We used the Teaching Cards for introducing the words – 10-12 at a time. The Pocket Chart Cards went into independent reading centers. We had one center that was primarily for sight word acquisition. Here, children focused on learning to recognize sight words. They worked alone or with a partner who could check their knowledge by showing them the backs of the cards where the plain words lurked. If a child was stumped over a plain word, his partner would simply wait a beat or two, and then turn the card to the stylized side to provide a hint. (See the difference between Teaching and Pocket Chart cards as well as which words are included in which list.)
Focus on meaning making and comprehension
In another center, the focus was phrase and sentence building – a little foray into comprehension and fluency. Here the children either deciphered phrases I had arranged in a pocket chart for them, practicing reading them, writing them and illustrating them in a folder. Or they had sentences in each row that were scrambled and their task was to unscramble the sentences with a partner so that they made sense. Having them write the corrected sequence in their center folders made it easy for me to check their work later. (See our book of sight words made into sentences.)
The required process
The first year I taught first grade at a public, at-risk school, I have to admit that I was terrified, having come from small group environments where I could focus on a handful of children at a time (Title 1). The district requirement was very specific as to the number of words 1st graders must learn, and also the order and procedure for acquiring these words. We were directed to install a word wall beginning with student names on day one of the year, and then as the children learned their required words, we were to add them to the word wall. My students devoured the sight words because of the images which attracted them like a magnet, and I followed their lead. What this meant was that I chose to follow their interest, which of course meant that the words were learned “in the wrong order.” But the children were completely engaged in the process, and they learned far more quickly than expected.
Very soon, the majority of the students had reached the end of the yearly list required by the district and were looking for more. I thought to myself, “WOW, these kids are going to be able to learn twice the number of words expected.” So I made a list of 100 words with little boxes for the kids to check off the words they learned in whole group and reading centers. They would get their names on our class whiteboard when they had mastered the list, and they would also get to choose a prize out of the class prize box. Well imagine my surprise when several children began to ask for another list of 100 words! I happily compiled another list and handed it out. Long story short – all told, by the end of 1st grade, we had 8 lists of 100 words each. By this time, I was struggling to find words to include on the lists. We had long ago used up the Dolch words, the Fry words, and the Fountas & Pinnell 500 words and I was dabbling in words like Algebra, geography, computer, etc. Anything that they might need to be able to read in high school. By the last day of school, ALL my students had mastered at least 200 words, and the majority had mastered 600, with a handful at the 800 mark.
Going beyond sight words recognition
The next year I looped up with my class and had them in 2nd grade. We continued stellar progress in sight word recognition. Our focus turned to reading books – lots of books! We worked on grammar, punctuation, proper usage, writing, really big words like fantastic, obnoxious, etc. HOWEVER, what I regret now is the lack of focus on true comprehension. Yes, my students passed their DIBELS and Fox in the Box testing among other tests that populate every at-risk, failing school. Many of them performed way above expectations. But when I look away from teaching to the test, what I would do differently now is that I would spend time focusing on using and understanding language for the purpose of gaining important knowledge. This is a real challenge for teachers because our time is so regimented; we are scripted in what we must do. But just as I found ways to introduce lessons that I felt were essential, that were NOT prescribed by the district, I wish I had also included purposeful teaching of reading comprehension.
Where I would go from sight word acquisition
Anything tucked into the day that is extra must be done with amazing efficiency and effectiveness. There is no time for detailed, complicated, tedious practices. Two things I would include are the practice of daily visualization practice: getting the children into the habit of “seeing” the content in their heads of what they are reading. Yes, visualization is taught explicitly, and visualization IS comprehension of reading. This doesn’t take much time to teach, and yet it is powerful for many reasons.
Of course other avenues to comprehension, of going beyond sight words, include being able to answer questions about the content, being able to supply missing words, being able to write using the acquired words, illustrating sentences written for you, and more such activities. Using a classroom word wall, you can teach comprehension by teaching opposites, synonyms, antonyms, etc.
Where to find this stuff
Of course, one of the biggest challenges I faced as a classroom teacher was finding good resources. I made so much of what I used and between that and making the required VERY complicated lesson plans, my time was gone. Now that I am designing full time, I have been able to create ready-to-use materials that will empower teachers to pick up essential activities and just use them. They are printable, photocopy-ready, and comprehensive. At the very heart of any reading program will be sight words (and other word) acquisition, but what we offer that makes a huge difference for students is the delivery method that transforms the task of memorizing sight words into snapping a mental picture of a stylized word which can be used immediately. I have tested this method personally with children of all ages, preschool and up. The results are amazing, partly because of the delivery method (snapping a picture of the word instantly via the image) and partly because the delivery method is so engaging. Finally, what success brings about is more success. Once a child has had a taste of rapid and effective learning, they become hooked on achievement. Then, our job becomes easy, like feeding candy to a five year old sweet tooth!
Go to the Child1st store to find our SnapWords, or for units that help you go Beyond Sight Words, visit the Teachers Pay Teachers site where you will find units called, interestingly enough, Beyond Sight Words. Included in the unit are activities for learning sight words, for practicing and fluency, for writing, for phonics, phonemic awareness, rhyming, word wall activities such as opposites, etc. SO much there for you to pick up and use.