The Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy Network (DDOLL) has recently been having an interesting discussion about whether systematic explicit phonics advocates have been dissing sight words too much. Not everything is about me, but I think I might be one of the possible-over-dissers – see for example my blog posts here, here and here.
A few days ago, Professor Anne Castles of Macquarie University, who’s on the Learning Difficulties Australia (LDA) Council with me, wrote a guest blog post on the Read Oxford website called “Are sight words unjustly slighted?”, which I encourage you to read.
Prof Castles has a brain like a planet and a string of relevant publications longer than both my arms, so we need to take what she says seriously.
What is a sight word?
To Prof Castles, sight words are words containing spellings which are tricky for beginners to sound out, which should be taught focussing more on the word level than the sound-letter relationships. However, she notes that “sight words” are often confused with the process of reading words “by sight” rather than having to sound out every word.
However, if Wikipedia is a valid indication of what most people think, most people think “sight words” are commonly used words that young children are encouraged to memorise as wholes by sight (my italics).
Experts on the SpellTalk listserve say sight words are words a reader can immediately recognise, and that the goal of reading instruction is to make all words into sight words.
The LDA website glossary says they’re “words that a reader recognizes without having to sound them out. Some sight words are ‘irregular’, or have letter-sound relationships that are uncommon. Some examples of sight words are you, are, have and said”. Which is kind of like having a bob each way, if the LDA glossary compilers will excuse my saying so.
Sigh. Here we are, back in Alice’s Wonderland, where a word may mean whatever I choose it to mean. Is the “sight” in “sight words” a property of the words, or a property of the reader?
For the purposes of this blog post, let’s go with Prof Castles’ definition – words containing tricky spellings that learners can’t successfully sound out.
How should sight words be taught?
Prof Castles says that sight word training is effective when the learners can already recognise letters and know that they represent sounds, and the training focusses on the words’ pronunciation, the identity and order of the letters, and includes lots of repetition.
She says children should not be encouraged to identify words by their overall shape or by salient visual features, and that teaching should always happen in the context of systematic, explicit phonics teaching.
The recommended teaching methods for sight words involve a great deal more than just using the sense of sight. When we pronounce words we use our hearing, and our kinaesthetic sense as we feel sounds in our mouths, and if we also write the words we feel the shapes of the letters in our hands. I’d probably call this multisensory teaching/learning, except that’s another Wonderland term. (No! Not the sandpaper! Not the shaving cream!)
If we are focussing on pronunciation and letters in sight words, then perhaps children should learn the similarly trickily-spelt words “to” and “do” together. Perhaps throw in “who”, another very common word with the same final vowel sound and spelling, just for laughs.
But would that be “teaching phonics” not “teaching sight words”? The boundary starts looking extremely unclear.
High-frequency words are confused with sight words
I don’t observe the sort of teaching Prof Castles recommends happening much in schools.
Most schools seem to agree with the Wikipedians that the term “sight word” is a synonym for “high-frequency word to be learnt by sight”.
High-frequency words are words people use a lot, not necessarily words with tricky spellings.
There are various high-frequency word lists, but for the purposes of this discussion let’s use the example of the Oxford Wordlist, since Prof Castles has blogged on the Read Oxford website, the list was devised locally, it’s endorsed by the University where I did my Masters in Applied Linguistics, and is widely used in my local schools. Here are some of the first 50 words on the standard list:
They contain common and uncommon spellings, they’re short and they’re long, some are built with suffixes and some aren’t. Such lists don’t help children learn spelling patterns.
The Oxford Wordlist was developed by researching the most common words in children’s writing and reading development in Australia in 2007. Its stated purpose is to allow educators to create “customised wordlists for early writers, use these lists to plan relevant programs, and determine those words most likely to allow all students to engage in the curriculum”.
High-frequency word lists are often used as spelling lists
The main thing I’ve seen the Oxford Wordlist used for in schools is to create spelling lists. A section of the list is assigned as the week’s spelling words, with a test at the end of the week. Teaching approaches tend to err on the side of the highly visual – flashcards, look-cover-write-check etc, plus reciting mnemonics (those dratted Big Elephants!) and letter names, rather than learning about linguistic properties and patterns in the words. I’d love to reorganise these lists in ways that would make clearer, more useful points about spelling.
Absolute beginners are encouraged to memorise the first few words from high-frequency word lists – which on the Oxford Wordlist means “I”, “a”, “the”, “and”, “he”, “was”, “to”, “my”, “it”, “in”, “is” – often before they have been taught all the relevant letters, and while many still have only a shaky grasp of the alphabetic principle. Parents are not, in my experience, instructed to focus on pronunciation and letters and letter sequences, rather than shape or visual features. Sometimes, quite the reverse.
Repetition? Sure. Some children try to rote-learn the same 100 high-frequency words without success for years on end.
I think teachers only ask children to rote-memorise words that are highly decodable even for beginners (like “on” and “in”) because they are not taught how to provide explicit, systematic phonics instruction, so they don’t know any better. Last week, I asked a group of about 60 Canberra teachers who had been taught about the sounds of spoken English at university. Not one hand went up. If I’d paid thousands for a degree that didn’t teach me something so fundamental to success and satisfaction in my future career, I’d be thinking about asking for my money back.
Good explicit phonics programs already contain sight words
I don’t understand why sight word lists even exist as separate Things from the explicit, systematic phonics programs in which sight word teaching is best embedded.
How can you know which words a child can’t sound out yet without knowing which sound-spelling correspondences have been taught so far?
Most explicit, systematic phonics programs nominate a few words in their little books at each level which contain harder spellings than those taught so far. These are to be learnt as wholes before reading, or children are to be assisted when they get to these words. It’s pretty hard to make an interesting story up using a very restricted set of spellings, so that’s understandable.
These words depend on the teaching sequence and stage. The “(learn by) heart words” in Little Learners Love Literacy Stage 3 (at which point children have been taught the most common sounds for the letters m, s, f, a, p, t, c, i, b, h, n, o, d, g, l, v, y, r, e, qu and z) are “the”, “he”, “was” and “she”.
The words “readers may need help with” in one of the Sounds~Write Unit 3 books (having been taught the main sounds for the letters a, i, m, s, t, n, p, o, b, c, g and h) are “said”, “did”, “and”, “the”, “of”, “put”, “but”, “is”, “a” and “Mum”.
These are both good explicit, systematic phonics programs, and both already include precisely what Prof Castles calls “sight words”.
There is no need for a separate “sight words” list.
Better terminology and methodology
The most recent contributions to the DDOLL discussion on this topic seem to be coming to the conclusion that it’s time we stopped using the term “sight words”. Hooray to that I say. It means too many different things to too many different people, and it gives the impression that reading involves visual memorisation of words, not something much more complex and linguistic.
I’d love everyone to give up on the thankless task of separating regular and irregular words, in order to teach them in two different ways. We just need to do better word study, so that we understand and teach about the many layers in our words: sounds (phonology), spelling (orthography), meaningful parts (morphology), function in sentences (syntax) and meaning or meanings (semantics).
The fuller and richer one’s knowledge of all these things, the more easily a word is recalled (Brief ad segue: the international expert on all this stuff, Prof Maryanne Wolf, will be speaking in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne in early September, you should come).
Even etymology is sometimes useful in word study, e.g. the apparently random letter O in the word “people” links it to the Latin word “populus” from whence also comes “population”, “popular”, “populous”, “vox pop” etc. Plus, Romans, Vikings and others with swords and funny hats can help make all sorts of stuff, including word study, more interesting to kids.