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Sight Words Issues

I am completing my masters degree in reading, and I am currently working on my practicum. I teach high-risk third graders and part of their reading skill problem is that they cannot decode words once they have past the first letter. After they decode the first letter, they guess at the rest of the word even if it does not make sense in the sentence. Then they just continue reading. I have to stop them and ask them to go back and recheck the word they mispronounced. How can I help them become better decoders?

A lot of decoding problems seem to come from teaching children to read by using mainly sight words. Instead of teaching them each letter has it’s own sight and sound, they often teach children to read by identifying a group of words like “fish” and then having them memorize that f-i-s-h is the word fish. Then every time children see a word that starts with “f” or “fi” they have associated “fi” with the word fish and read fish. Therefore reading almost every “fi” word as fish—whether it is or isn’t.

Learning sight words is obviously a very important part of language development, as every language has many exceptions to every rule. However, I’ve seen it over and over again—a child who has a phonetic understanding of our language and knows what each letter says in a word has the attack skills to sound out a word that they don’t know when they encounter it in a sentence. They understand that not every “fi” word is automatically “fish” and they sound out each letter, blending it as they go.

Teaching kids to be better decoders starts early, with the approach to teaching phonetic-based versus sight based, but that’s a huge discussion in and of itself and we’ll leave that to the PhD’s who don’t actually teach kids, but just think about teaching. Actual classroom application varies, but I’ve had good success in backing up a bit. Helping the kids realize that each letter in a word usually pulls it’s own weight, like a train. Each letter has a sound that it needs to say. I use a lot of flashcard games to help teach kids how to decode. Example: I have in my hand 8-10 letters cards that I know can make simple words. They pick a card, any card, and tell me what it says. They lay it down and go again. Placing several in a row, hoping to make a word. Have them shuffle them around to form a word. Then you do it. Back and forth, back and forth. Having them blend each sound into a word will give them better attack skills at sounding out words.

The younger, the better—but third grade isn’t too late. My guess is that if you’re working with high-risk kids, they’re reading skills might not be up to third grade level yet—or at least in some cases. When we tutor older kids at school (older in my case here being second, third, and fourth graders), we simply back up. Start with the sound of each letter and then blending, blending, blending. Teaching them to attack the entire word instead of just the first initial letter will be more helpful to them in their decoding skills. Best of luck to you and bless you for choosing to be a teacher. It sounds like you’ll be a great one.

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