Sight words are words that appear frequently in text children read, but are difficult to sound out. Children are encouraged to learn these words “by sight.”

Once a child learns to recognize and identify words on a sight word list, they will be able to read about 75 percent of the words in most children’s literature and an even higher percentage in books designated for early readers. For example, 87 percent of the words in Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham” and P.D. Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?” are sight words.

Even chapter books contain a high percentage of sight words. For example, in “Charlotte’s Web” you will read

Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Notice that the blue non-sight words contain the meaning of the sentence. When read with automaticity, the child can focus on comprehension. Schools commonly use the Dolch Word List, which was compiled in 1948 by Edward William Dolch, Ph.D.

Patricia Cunningham, author of “Phonics They Use: Words for Reading and Writing” explains, “In order to read and write fluently with comprehension and meaning, children must be able to automatically read and spell the most frequent words. As the store of words they can automatically read and spell increases, so will their speed and comprehension.”

Once a child learns these sight words, they can be more successful figuring out the unknown words through the use decoding tools, such as phonemics–sounding it out—or through context clues and pictures.

In general, starting in preK and through third grade, teachers present new sets of sight words appropriate to the age of students. By the time students have finished grade 3, they should be able to read the 220 sight words. The first list includes the following words: a, and, away, big, blue, can, come, down, find, for, funny, go, help, here, I, in, is, it, jump, little, look, make, me, my, not, one, play, red, run, said, see, the, three to, two, up, we, where, yellow and you. Think of the sentences and stories a child can write or read using this simple list.

Look, said the big blue bird, I can jump!

In this sentence, every word except “bird” is on the Dolch sight word list. Add a picture of a blue bird jumping, and the child should be able to read–and just as importantly, comprehend–the story.

Beyond the Flashcard

How can parents help their children learn sight words? While teachers in the classroom utilize best-practice techniques in teaching their students to read, it is parents that can help them to generalize these words to life outside the school walls by pointing out sight words. It is especially important for parents of children with learning disabilities or challenges to reinforce the learning at home.

Word walls. Teachers often have “word walls,” which display words students are learning. Consider making such a word wall at home. Not only will it give a visual reinforcement of the sight words, it will show your child that you value his education. In addition, you can use the wall as your own constant reminder of the words you can help your child to identify throughout the day.

Read along. When reading to children, follow the words with your finger, pause when you come to a sight word, and allow the child to identify and read the word. If the child gets frustrated or upset because he just wants to listen to the story, keep calm and do not add to his frustration. Without skipping a beat, continue reading, including the sight words, which you can emphasize. Reading should be seen as a treat, not a chore.

Leverage interests. Take advantage of your child’s interests. Go to your library or bookstore and ask where they keep emerging reader books, specifically words that emphasize the sight words of your child’s grade level. There are even books available that have sight words highlighted, and some that include word cards you can cut out and use as practice. There is a very good chance you will find a book that captures your child’s attention.

While some words, like “a, can, is, the and where” are difficult to represent with pictures, others, such as number and color words, have clear visual components. Have the child match a picture card with its corresponding name.

Get Up and Play!

Ask yourself, “Does my child learn best with pictures, sounds or movement?” If you’re not sure, ask your child’s teacher or reading specialist for her input.

Words into action. If you have a child that is not able to sit still long enough to practice reading, make signs with the words that invite action. For example on the preK/kindergarten list you will find, “up, look, down, jump, one, two, three, play, run” and so on. Go outside and give your child a challenge to put the words into motion: “run here” or “jump three,” “look up” or “go find yellow.”

Action figures. Does your child like to play pretend with superheroes, dolls or stuffed animals? Bring the toys into the game. This works well with the prepositions on the list, such as “on, under, out and over” and verbs, such as “jump, fly, ride, sleep, take and walk.”

Set up an object for the toy to interact with, such as a chair or box. Have your child read the cards and make the teddy bear (or Superman) follow the directions. “Superman, run under the chair” or “Teddy Bear, jump down.” How about having Mr. Monkey go to sleep now, fly away or go up? If you give the doll a little prize for following directions, you will take the pressure to perform off of your child.

Get Technical

While working one-on-one with your child is the best bet, there are times when you can’t give your undivided attention. During these times, use videos and apps that reinforce sight word-learning. Schools often post links on their websites, or ask your child’s teacher for recommendations. Now get reading!

Jennifer VanBuren is a Georgetown mother of three school-aged children, an educator and a childbirth doula.

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