In this blog post: Learn how to teach and review sight words, or high frequency words and heart words, with the Science of Reading in mind.
Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there lived a teacher who was all too fed up with her sight word instruction. *Ahem* That teacher was me.
We had both a whole group and small group sight word routine and, yes, it worked for many students. But for many students.. it didn’t.
Have you ever felt fed up with your sight word instruction? Have you felt like no matter what you do, students just aren’t memorizing those words? It can be frustrating beyond belief! But it doesn’t have to be.
The Science of Reading tells us that there is a better way to teach sight words or high frequency words.
This blog post will show you how to take current research in how the brain learns to read and apply it to your sight word instruction to amp up your impact.
Table of Contents
What is a sight word?
Before we dive in, let’s quickly discuss the difference between sight words vs. high frequency words vs. heart words.
These terms are often used interchangeably by teachers so it can quickly get confusing, but there are distinct differences.
Sight words are any words that you can instantly recognize by sight. The average adult has 30,000 to 60,000 sight words in their memory bank. Our goal when teaching high frequency words is that they will eventually become sight words.
High frequency words are the most commonly occurring words in text. These are words that our students need to learn because they will show up in the books that they are reading. High frequency words can be both decodable or not decodable to our students.
Heart words are high frequency words that have at least one part that is irregular and, therefore, not decodable to students. Most of the word can usually still be decoded, but there will be one or more parts that students need to know by heart.
So how do we help those high frequency words become sight words?
How does the brain learn to read?
Research shows that when our brain reads a word, there are actually four parts of the brain that are working together. The four-part processing model by Dr. Louisa Moats says that our brain uses phonological, orthographic, meaning, and context processors when recognizing a word.
The strongest sight word instruction will address each of these processors to help students build connections in their brain.
The phonological processor helps us understand that phonemes, or sounds, make up words. This is t where phonemic awareness occurs.
The orthographic processor understands that written letters, or graphemes, make up words. Students with weak orthographic processing skills may rely heavily on sounding out words, struggle with letter recognition and automaticity, or have frequent spelling errors.
The meaning processor helps us determine the meaning of words. When we read, our brain takes the information from the phonological and orthographic processor and helps us make sense of the word we are reading.
Finally, the context processor. This processor words in tandem with the meaning processor. It uses the context that the word is being used in to help us further understand the meaning of the word.
In order for words to become sight words, we must help our students put those processors together, particularly the phonological and orthographic processors. For some students it will take only a few exposures to build those connections, and for others it will take hundreds.
According to David Kilpatrick, orthographic mapping is the process we used to store words in our brain for easy retrieval. These stored words have become sight words.
Some readers will be able to develop orthographic mapping skills naturally, but other students will need repeated direct instruction. In reality, explicit instruction that promotes the process of orthographic mapping can only help to strengthen these skills in every student.
You can promote the orthographic mapping of high frequency words with a few easy changes to your sight word routine.
How to introduce sight words
When introducing sight words either whole group or in small groups, there are a few easy ways that you can help students activate each processor in their brain. Let’s use the word “said” as an example.
First, start by simply saying the word and having students repeat. said
Next, use the word in a sentence to give it meaning and context. Mom said that I could watch TV.
You can also let students come up with their own sentences using the word in context.
Then, say the word slowly. Have students count the sounds they hear. /s/ /e/ /d/. 3 sounds. Draw three lines on the board to represent each sound.
Help students connect the phonemes to their spelling. Begin with the decodable parts first:
What sound do you hear first? /s/. How do we spell that sound? S. I will write an s first.
What sound do you hear last? /d/. How do we spell that sound? D. I will write a d last.
Then move on to the tricky parts of the word.
What sound do you hear in the middle? /e/. In this word, we have tricky letters making the /e/ sound. ai are making the /e/ sound. This is the part we need to know by heart. Write ai in the middle of the word.
If you are teaching these as heart words, you can add a heart over or under the tricky part of the word. This just helps students remember that this is the part of the word that is making a tricky sound.
Finally, give students multiple opportunities to practice writing, spelling, and reading the word.
💡If you want to see this step-by-step visually, check out this blog post: How to Teach Heart Words
If you are introducing your high frequency words whole group, these Heart Word Worksheets are a great way for students to follow up.
Student sight word practice
When students practice and review sight words in small groups, there is an easy routine that you can use to promote the orthographic mapping process. We call this tap it, map it, graph it.
First, students will say the word.
Then, they will tap the sounds.
Tapping the sounds can look like using their pointer finger to tap one dot for each sound. For a paperless approach, it can also look like touching their thumb to first their pointer finger, then middle finger, then ring finger, and so on.
Next, students will map the sounds.
We do this with sound boxes. Students take a counter or cube and put one in each box for the sounds that they hear in the word. If a word has two sounds (my), students would put out two counters. If a word has three sounds (said), students would put out three counters.
Next, graph the word.
Graph comes from a Greek word meaning “to write.” This is when students will assign each sound to it’s spelling.
You will have students push up a counter as they write the letter or letters that represent the sound in each box. If more than one letter makes a said (like ai in the word said), students will write both letters in one box. Remember, each box represents one sound, not one letter.
We use this process for both decodable high frequency words and heart words. If a word is a heart word, I also have students color a heart under the tricky part of the word.
Finally, students write the word again multiple times. Each time they write the word they also find and mark the heart part.
You can grab these FREE Map It mats here:
Do you love free stuff?
Sight Word Mapping Mats
These free Map It mats can be used to promote orthographic mapping of heart words and high frequency words in your small groups.
Guided Writing With Sight Words
Another way to strengthen students processing of sight words is to ask them to use the word in context while writing. You can make it a point to add the high frequency words that you have been working on into your dictated sentences in small groups.
You can easily give students a chance to use the high frequency word in context by choosing a dictated sentences that uses the word. For example, if our word was said, the dictated sentence might be: Mom said get the bag.
Just a note: If this is a dictated sentence with my beginning writers, I am not worrying about correct mechanics and using quotation marks yet. I want my students focus to be on encoding and writing each word.
Review, review, review!
Once you have introduced your high frequency word and students have had the chance to practice, you will want to give them as many opportunities to review as possible. These should include chances to map the word, read the word, and write the word.
You can find a variety of no prep options in the Heart Words and High Frequency Words Endless Bundle. These worksheets give students a multisensory approach to review and practice each word.
For example, with these worksheets, students will read the word, map it, and graph it. Then they will find and highlight the word. Finally, they will trace and write the word.
These sight word worksheets also include activities that are engaging for students like dabbing the sounds or the word with a dot marker, cutting and building the word, or rainbow writing the word.
The best part? This is an endless bundle, which means that it never stops growing! New heart word and high frequency word activities will continue to be added and you will get to download those for free!
I hope this blog post helped you better understand how the brain learns to read sight words, and some easy ways that you can improve your sight word instruction according to the Science of Reading.
As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to email me at [email protected].