I’m a little embarrassed to admit, but I was taken aback by how much my son and other children in kindergarten were expected to learn. From uppercase and lowercase letters to basic addition and subtraction, it seemed like a lot. But what I was really surprised by? Sight words. Every week, the teacher would send home another long list that my son was expected to practice every day and memorize, and to tell you the truth, I was floored by how much kindergarten expectations had changed since I was a kid.
I remember learning the alphabet with giant letter stuffed-animal superheroes. Our teacher would let us play with them—somewhere between snack and nap time. Recess was the highlight of our days, and when I asked my mom if I had homework back then, well, she laughed.
Now this is not to criticize teachers or curriculums because I really loved school growing up. I expected things to change, to become a little more competitive. But despite loving school and reading to my son, sight words have been a challenge in our house, which is why I enlisted expert Beth Gaskill from Big City Readers to give some insight and tips on how to help children learn sight words. Gaskill is a former elementary school teacher and early childhood educator who was trained as a multi-sensory literacy instructor. She founded Big City Readers to help families come together to learn in fun ways.
When I asked Gaskill about sight words, she had a lot to share.
What are “sight words”?
“So there is a big debate around sight words right now, but if you pay attention to the early literacy world, there is always a debate. In fact, if you want to feel really overwhelmed, you can Google the ‘reading wars’ and spend [too much time] learning about them,” Gaskill said. “But for now, I am going to try and simplify these answers for the busy, pandemic-surviving parent. To be honest, that’s what my entire Instagram is about.”
“Sight words are a list of words that don’t follow the typical rules of spelling (like how you can sound out the word c-a-t) at the time they are seen by kids. They are typically taught to be memorized by their shape. But this is not reading, hence the reading debate,” Gaskill said.
Sight words are a list of words that don’t follow the typical rules of spelling (like how you can sound out the word c-a-t) at the time they are seen by kids.
“There is a way to properly teach kids sight words, and it’s in a mapping technique. Sight words are typically the most frequently seen words in early readers, and some sight words include like, of, is, we, me, my, etc.” she added.
“The problem is that all words want to be sight words, words you just know by sight, right? There are skills that can be taught to help kids actually decode words or store them by heart when they have ‘rule breakers’ in them, like how the letter i typically says the /i/ sound like in the beginning of the word ‘itch,’ but in kindergarten or first grade, kids will learn the magic e pattern and more about long i sounds and how magic e changes the vowel sound,” she added.
When should children start learning sight words?
While my oldest son has had a very easy time learning numbers and doing basic math, he has struggled with letters, and so I worried about how difficult it would be for him to pick up sight words. A few months into kindergarten, I felt horrible about how behind he had fallen and wanted to help him catch up but also wanted to make sure my other child was better prepared. When I asked Gaskill how and when children should start to learn sight words, she offered some guidance.
“Typically, we introduce a few sight words when kids have learned their letters and sounds and are confidently playing with words, like ‘I see a t and an r in that sign!’ at Target, or are able to say, ‘There’s a stop sign! S-s-s-s-stop like the beginning of s-s-s-snake!’ Memorizing sight words before kids are demonstrating early reading skills like print awareness and phonological awareness of sounds in words is putting the cart before the horse,” she said.
“Typically, 4-to-6-year-olds are ready to notice more about words and you can start to introduce a few frequently occurring words. I like to start with words they use often like ‘like.’ To fully understand and master a sight word, kids should be able to use it in a sentence, notice when they are using it, spell it, and read it. So I start with preschoolers and pick one word at a time and talk about it a lot, like, ‘I like pizza!’ I put it on the fridge and point to it every time we say it,” she said.
If you’re a fan of coffee, like me and Gaskill, she suggested making a game out of sight words in the morning with Post-its on your favorite items in the Instagram post below:
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What’s the best list of sight words? Should I use pictures?
Gaskill said she typically follows the “Fry list” (high frequency words), but most sets of words are very similar. She does not recommend using pictures, as it can lead to kids using the picture to guess the word and not actually reading.
For busy parents, what do you suggest they focus on?
As a busy working mom of two, I wanted (no, needed) to know how to optimize our time at home. Between after-school activities, making dinner, and catching up on work, I found myself making excuses not to practice with my children. But when I asked Gaskill for insight on what to focus on, she said, “Less is more!”
“Again, kids only master the word if they know how to use it, spell it, and read it. I have three games I like to play that take a few minutes a day and are fun. I start small, so if I am working with a 4-year-old, I will start with one word. For parents trying to work with their first grader who might have a list to practice, I’ll break the list in half and spend the first half of the week really nailing those words and talking about them a lot. I might even let them put the word ‘like’ around the house on everything they like. We might have a funny buzzer we press every time someone says ‘like’ at dinner if that is a word we are practicing,” Gaskill said.
Are there any tips for teaching sight words?
“Yes! Make it fun, keep it short, and throw out the word ‘have to’ and shift to dialogue such as, ‘OMG, it’s almost time to play our word game—I can’t wait!’ instead of ‘It’s time to practice.’ [Kids] follow our energy more than anything else,” Gaskill said. “You’ll know they mastered a word if they read it in two seconds, write it, and know how to use it in a sentence.”
After listening to Gaskill’s advice, I’ve added a few games with sight words to help my boys have fun with learning, and it has been revolutionary. Here are two affordable options we love: