How to deal with Sight (Dolch) Words when Learning to Read

In 1948, Edward William Dolch PhD, of the University of Illinois, in his book ‘Problems in Reading’ identified a list of words that he believed to be essential for all students to learn first.  He had researched children’s books to determine which words were most frequently used and after careful analysis and professional judgment, he derived a list of the most common words, usually referred to as sight words.  The Dolch list of 220 words includes conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives and verbs.  He referred to these words as ‘tools’ or ‘service’ words because they are used in all writing regardless of subject matter.

reading sight wordsMany teachers have found this to be true.  Although most of the 220 Dolch words are phonetic, children are sometimes told that they can’t be ‘sounded out’ using common sound-to-letter implicit phonics patterns and have to be learned by sight; hence the alternative term, ‘sight word’. Unfortunately, English is not a simple a phonetic language and not all words can be sounded out. So Dolch maintained that teaching children the simplicity of recognising words by sight, they stand a better chance at becoming fluent readers.

In addition to the 220 “service words”, Dolch also put together a list of 95 common nouns which appeared most frequently in children’s books at the time, some of which seem outdated today.

In my experience, the difficulty that many children have with sight words is that most sight words are abstract words and therefore it can be difficult to understand what the word means.  Think about it.  How do you explain the word ‘it’ or ‘and’ or ‘if’ or ‘but’?

It is easy to get meaning for a car or boat.  Before learning how to read, a child has already absorbed language & understands the meaning of many words, even abstract words. They understand them in context even if they are unable to accurately verbalise their meaning.

It is very important that sight words are taught in context and with meaning.  The student needs to be able to visualise and hear the meaning.  For example, for the word ‘if’ they should have a mini movie in their head as to what it means – If I eat too may sweets what will happen?  When saying the word ’if’, it should sound like a question.

Learning to spell the word first will also make reading it easier, especially if the word is not spelled phonetically.  The student will recognise the pattern of the letters, have meaning behind it and know the correct pronunciation, thus making reading the word in the future much easier.

I do not believe in using flashcards when beginning to learn the Dolch words.  They place huge stress on the student.  It is far better to use a good story which has specifically incorporated the 220 words.   Even better, why not get the students to come up with their own stories? The crazier the better!  We learn so much better and much more easily when we are enjoying ourselves.

Parental involvement is key to all learning, but especially when taking on the hundreds of sight words children need to know!  Communication is paramount here.  If you have a student who is struggling with sight words, contact the teacher and ask them specifically for help with this. Struggling with sight words does not automatically mean that there is an underlying learning difficulty.  Reading sight wordsIn my experience, it can be easily and quickly resolved through the following simple strategies:

  • Have meaning for the word – create a mental image for it, one that makes sense to the child
  • Be able to spell the word – have a mental photograph of the entire word
  • Hook the meaning and selling together
  • Avoid phonics and the brain will recognise the word more readily.
  • Write down the word when spelling it rather than reciting it.
  • Use sentences rather than calling out lists of words. When a child writes sentences, it gives them exposure to the sight words in a meaningful way.

Sometimes, more experienced readers may skip sight words when reading aloud.  This does not necessarily mean that they are struggling with reading.  Reading aloud is slower than reading silently and very often it means that the brain is speed reading over the Dolch words. It doesn’t have to focus on them because the brain automatically fills in the words when reading silently. This is because the brain is focused on the meaning of the sentence rather than reading each individual word.

 

For further information contact Elaine on 087 2996054 or Elaine@hummingbirdlearning.com

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