A+ Advice for Parents

Insight on Sight Words

Q: Our first-grade daughter brings home sight words to practice, so I ordered sight-word flashcards. When I showed the teacher, she said the flashcards were based on a "Dolch" list and preferred that we practice the words she sends home. What's the difference?

A: Sight-word practice is one of the best investments a parent can make in an early reader's progress. Knowing them by heart builds young readers' confidence and frees their brains to decode more challenging words.

"There are a few 'little' words that hold the English language together," says Dr. Marilyn Adams, one of the nation's top literacy experts. "I call them 'glue words.' They are so basic that nothing can be written for or by children without at least some of them.

"The good thing is that most of these words are short. The bad thing is that most are badly spelled."

Adams explains that the influential 220-word Dolch sight-word list, created in 1948, was "compiled during the 'look-say' era of reading, before research established the critical importance of early phonics instruction."

Why does the teacher prefer that you not use Dolch flashcards? "The Dolch list contains lots of decodable words," notes Adams. "Because the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) emphasize phonics instruction, children have tools to decode words such as 'big.' What they struggle with -- and where phonics skills don't help -- are high-utility words that don't follow basic rules, especially articles, prepositions, helping verbs and pronouns, such as the, there, of, to, my, you, is, are, does."

Children have to learn these from memory. "They actually have to 'overlearn' them," says Adams. "The goal is to make sure these words help a young reader, rather than get in the way. If children try to decode the word 'the,' for example, every time they encounter it, they slow down their reading, break their train of thought and become frustrated. Learning high-frequency irregular words by heart propels them forward."

Primary teachers encourage parents to help kids master high-frequency words, says Jessica Kelmon, reading editor at GreatSchools.org.

"Mastery takes practice, and there's no way that teachers can give each child enough practice time during the school day," she says.

Working with California reading specialist Jen Kaufman, GreatSchools editors created "Snap Words" worksheets for preschool through first grade. "We call them 'Snap Words,'" say Kelmon, "because kids have to know them in a snap! Parents love them because they can squeeze in some practice when they have a few extra minutes. All of our Snap Words worksheets are pegged to CCSS for kindergarten and first grade." (GreatSchools.org will soon offer parents Snap Words games to download on their smartphones.)

Don't toss the flashcards. Instead, cover them up and each week write the teacher's word list on them. "And don't forget that children need help using these words, too," says Adams. "Have fun, for example, with rebus play, such as 'the mouse is in/on/by the house.'

"Emphasize the words when you use them in sentences, so children see their role in our language."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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