This is a common question we hear from both parents and teachers! Often our children may come home with a stack of words that they are expected to memorize, or as a teacher, you are required to get your students reading high-frequency words quickly.
Although it's a common misconception that the words commonly taught as sight words cannot be sounded out, in reality 95% of them are phonetically regular (and most of the remaining 5% contain only one sound or spelling that is doing something unusual).
If you need to teach certain sight words, simply begin by teaching students the phonics concepts students need to understand them and then helping the students sound the words out. Then, as you practice the words through games or drill, and when students encounter them in books, reinforce the relationship between the letters and the sounds by letting the students sound the word out again as long as they need to and providing clarifications about what sounds different letters are making whenever needed. This allows true fluency to develop naturally and avoids giving students the false impression that some words are random combinations of letters that must be memorized by sight.
For those in need of guidance in how to do this, our book Sounding Out the Sight Words is a great resource for both parents and teachers. This guide to teaching the Dolch Words through phonics can be used to help you teach the concepts needed for decoding specific words or to systematically teach the phonics concepts needed to read all 315 words on the Dolch List. It's an excellent alternative to rote sight word drill.
Most sight-word-based and whole language programs rely heavily on memorizing predetermined lists of common words, such as those in the Dolch List, since the research is clear that the ability to read high-frequency words quickly and easily is an important step in developing reading fluency.
On the one hand, the goal of this approach is understandable. Most educators estimate that the 220 words on the Dolch List, for example — a commonly-used "sight word" list — make up over half of any written text in English. The ability to read these highest-frequency words easily and quickly is a necessity before a child can read texts fluently.
However, the evidence-based research into the science of reading has shown that the brain learns to read by combining letter-sound knowledge and phonemic awareness skills. As it learns the letter-sound relationships, the brain maps the letter sequences to prior spoken language knowledge. The brain then makes an orthographic map of the word, and with additional practice, the brain decodes the word more rapidly until it eventually seems instantaneous. This makes it seem as if the child has the word memorized by sight; however, in reality the brain began to learn the word by sound and then made an orthographic map. The more experience with the word, the more quickly the word is recognized. (To learn more about the research, check out our video The Science of Reading.)
This means our brains do not actually learn how to read by sight or by rote memorization! Although it is vital to build fluency over time in reading the high-frequency words, the most effective starting point is learning to truly read the word, sound by sound.
This also means that the stacks of flash cards that are often used in early reading programs are actually working against the way the brain actually develops reading fluency, unless the child has first gone through the process of learning why it is spelled the way it is and decoding the word by sound.
Once students have learned how to read certain high-frequency words, then it's time to practice. Allowing time for students to play games and develop fluency reading the high-frequency words helps them to develop a strong foundation for success in reading! Games not only are highly motivating; the intensity of playing promotes deeper learning more quickly. By playing high-frequency word games with students frequently, you help them develop the ability to read these words automatically.
Need help doing this? You can easily teach your students the tools they need to sound out the Dolch words — and thousands of additional words — using Sounding Out the Sight Words: A Guide to Teaching the Dolch Words through Phonics. This resource is a powerful tool for parents and teachers who want (or are required) to teach their students the high-frequency words in the Dolch List, but who want, instead of forcing rote memory of whole words through flash card drill, to teach students the phonics tools needed to understand, sound out, and read these common words.
You can also find dozens of games for practicing high-frequency words in the Logic of English Game Book!