In junior classes, Sight or Dolch words are a big part of 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 made 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 the subject matter.
Many 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 phonetic language and not all words can be sounded out. Dolch maintained that by teaching children the simplicity of recognising words by sight, they stood 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together a list of 95 common nouns which appeared most frequently in children’s books at the time, some of which are outdated today.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 ‘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 many 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.
Struggling with sight words does not automatically mean that there is an underlying learning difficulty. In my experience, it can often be easily and quickly resolved through the following simple strategies:
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.
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