1. Sight words are confidence builders. The power of self-efficacy (a person’s belief in his ability to accomplish a task) in learning situations cannot be underestimated. When children believe they can learn something new they are much more likely to actually acquire new knowledge. Children are smart though! They don’t always believe they can complete a task just because we tell them they can. They need evidence that they have what it takes to achieve. Sight words can provide this proof for a developing reader. Because Dolch’s sight words make up 50 to 75% of the words in any children’s text knowing these lists of high frequency words gives young readers a huge advantage when attempting to read new stories. When a child sees that she recognizes more than half of the words on the page, she has the confidence to attempt to read it.
2. Sight words free up a child’s energy to tackle more challenging words. Reading is tough work! As fluent readers we often underestimate the amount of focus and energy reading takes when you don’t know most of the words on the page before you. When children have to decode each word that they encounter in a sentence, they not only become frustrated they begin to lose the meaning of the text. They become so focused on “sounding out” the words that they are not able to think about what the words are actually saying. Once children know Dolch’s sight words, they only need to slow down their reading to focus on decoding new, challenging words.
3. Sight words provide clues to the meaning of a sentence. Even though many of the Dolch sight words contain fewer than five letters, they are critical to a text’s meaning. While many pieces of children’s literature use illustrations as a companion to words, ultimately we want our young readers to be able to decipher the meaning of a text primarily by reading and understanding the words. Sight words help children make sense of what they are reading by providing clues to the overall meaning of a sentence. Take for example a few of the verbs from Dolch’s pre-primer list: jump, play, see. The sentence “I jump in the pool” takes on a whole new meaning when one of the other two verbs are substituted. Similarly, understanding the meaning of pronouns such as I, you, she and he (all sight words on the pre-primer and primer lists) is essential to comprehending the sentences they are used in.
4. Sight words sometimes defy decoding strategies. While phonics instruction is vital in helping children learn to read, its strategies, especially teaching children to sound out unfamiliar words are not always useful. The English language has many words that cannot be “discovered” by a young reader using phonics. A good number of these words are used frequently in texts. For example, four, blue, please and said are among the most commonly used words in children’s stories. It is fruitless for a child to spend time attempting to sound out these words because they do not follow standard phonetic rules. These and many other sight words need to be taught to children so that they can instantly recognize and understand the words when they come across them in texts.
5. Sight word instruction builds a foundation for reading new, more complex words. The benefits of sight word instruction extend far beyond their immediate use in helping young people learn to read. Not only do these words continue to appear in more advanced texts, the process of learning sight words builds important learning behaviors that the reader will forever use to learn new vocabulary. When children learn a sight word they are making a connection between their prior knowledge of the word (its pronunciation and meaning) and its spelling. The process of merging the two is mediated by their knowledge of the alphabet. The letters and their corresponding sounds create a mnemonic that helps the child remember the word. Researchers say once a child has repeatedly practiced this skill for learning vocabulary by moving through the lists of sight words, the process becomes ingrained in her repertoire of reading skills. She will then instinctively begin using this method for integrating new, more complex sight words into her knowledge base.
6. Sight words enhance ESL instruction. With the increasing number of ESL students joining today’s communities and classrooms, it is incumbent upon teachers to find ways to reach this unique group of students. One of the main goals of ESL instruction is to teach children functional English language skills. Teaching sight words to ESL learners gives them tremendous advantages. Because many of the sight words on Dolch’s lists not only occur frequently in children’s stories, but also daily conversations, it is extremely beneficial to focus ESL instruction on sight word learning. Beyond this, some of the verbs that form the foundation of the lists (and of English language texts) take on irregular forms. Consider the changes that the common verbs go, be and do go through when applied to different singular and plural nouns. Because they do not follow standard rules, the only way to learn these conjugations is through memorization.
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