• Adelle Southall

3 Steps to Teach Your Child Sight Words


Have you been trying to teach your child sight words to no avail?


I’m going to give you 3 steps to teach your child sight words.


There are so many different names for these words and until recently I honestly couldn’t tell you the difference between them. So let’s walk through so quick definitions of these words before we dive into how to best help your child.


You might have heard them called:

  • Sight words

  • High-frequency words

  • Irregular words

  • Heart words


What are sight words?


Sight words are words that your child knows by sight. These are words that they can read just by looking at them. They’ve either memorized the letter combination or can sound these words out correctly to be able to understand them.


What are high-frequency words?


A high-frequency word is a word that is seen very often in text. Often, these are articles, connecting words, and words that don’t have much meaning unless they’re in context.


There are two “go-to” lists of high-frequency words that many schools use: Dolch and Fry. Both of these lists were researched and ordered based on the frequency the words are used in the English language. I use Fry words with my students. We work our way through all 1,000 words to build their reading confidence and to expand the text beyond what they can sound out.


Eventually, high-frequency words will become sight words. As children are repeatedly exposed to the word, they will begin to memorize it, making it a sight word.


What are irregular words?


Irregular words are words that don’t follow our typical English spelling and writing patterns.


Let’s take the word “of” for example. When we sound out the word “of” we can hear /u/ and /v/ sounds. However, we spell this word with an “o” and an “f”. That is irregular.


Or the word “who”. When we sound out the word “who” we hear the sounds /h/ and /oo/. Both sounds are represented by uncommon spellings, making it a word that students will need to learn by heart.


Most irregular words only have 1 or 2 sounds that make them irregular. So your child will only need to remember the irregular part and can sound out the rest. Many like to call these words “Heart Words”.



What are Heart Words?


Heart words are words that we need to know by heart. Even after children have broken the code to reading, and know all the various letter patterns and sounds that they can make, there will be words that follow an irregular pattern that we just need to know by heart.


Heart words can be regular words that your child hasn’t learned the patterns for yet, temporary irregular words. Knowing more of these words will allow your child to read more books. High-frequency words are in so many beginning reading books, that we need to teach them these words before they are able to become regular words.


3 steps to helping your child with sight words


Here is the 3 step process I follow to teach children how to read and write irregularly spelled words.


Step 1 - Count the sounds in the word


Before you show your child the word, start by saying the word and counting how many sounds are in the word.


I like to use tiles or little manipulatives to map the sounds. Each piece counts as a sound.


Let's look at the word "could" for our example.



A website I use with my online tutoring students is Really Great Reading Letter Tiles. This is the website I will be using for my examples.



Step 2 - Write what letters SEEM to make the sounds


After counting the sounds, think of how to spell each sound.


The first sound seems to be a “c”. That’s correct.


The second sound seems to be a “u”. That’s the heart part of this word. We spell this sound “oul” for the word “could”


The third sound seems to be a “d” and that is correct.



It's important to map the word by sounding out each sound. This way your child will have a concrete example and reasoning for each word.


Talk about the meaning of the word. - This can be HARD! Especially these function type words. It's hard to explain the word "could" without using the word "could".


If you want to take it a step further you can also look up the word's history on EtymOnline.com.


Step 3 - Practice writing and orally spelling the word


After your child sees the word and knows which part they need to learn by heart we can then work on writing the word.


One trick I learned to make this practice more fun and multisensory is to put a plastic embroidery screen behind a piece of paper as you practice writing the word.


After your screen is in place, write your words using a crayon to really get those bumps raised.


As they write have them say each letter. C O U L D spells could.


Then they’re going to trace the word with their fingers to feel the bumps. Again, saying each letter as they go. C O U L D spells could. Trace it 3 times with the mesh still under the paper.


Then put the mesh on top of the paper. Trace and spell 3 more times. C O U L D spells could.


Now they’re ready to try it out without looking.


They can close their eyes or cover the word and try spelling orally OR you can cover and write.



Reading AND Spelling Sight Words


It’s so important for kids to be able to both read and spell irregular words. As kids learn how to spell these words, they should also be able to read them in books.


Reading will come first and more quickly. As kids get used to seeing the words they will become a sight word, a word they can look at a know immediately. The more exposure they have to the word the more quickly they will be able to read it.


Most children need between one and four exposures to be able to seal that word in long-term memory. Struggling readers will need a lot more.


Spelling takes lots of time and practice as the heart parts are irregular so they make it a little more difficult to spell. Just keep reminding them of the heart part and it will come.


Want help with your child's journey to literacy?


If all of this feels too frustrating or you'd prefer to hand off this skill to an expert, click below to schedule a consultation. I'll assess your child and give you the next best steps for your child's journey to becoming a reader.





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