Your child has started reading. Hooray! This opens up an entirely new world. He/she is decoding using knowledge of letter sounds. But what about all those words that don’t follow the rules?
Back in the early 80s, my first grade teacher put these words in jail. She had a bulletin board featuring an actual jail cell complete with construction paper black bars. Each week, she put a word behind bars so we could memorize it because we couldn’t use our phonemic knowledge to read it. I still remember putting the word ‘the’ in jail.
These words are what many educators refer to as sight words.
What are sight words?
“Sight words are words that do not fit standard phonetic patterns and must be memorized…Put simply, sight words are words that we teach our young readers to know by heart. That way, they don’t have to spend valuable time decoding them.”- Elizabeth Mulvahill, We Are Teachers
So you want to teach your children to read and spell sight words? This is no easy task. They can’t just apply their knowledge of letter sounds. Sight words call for a more creative approach.
Here are 5 ways to encourage kids to learn sight words. I’ve used them as an elementary school teacher and also with my children at home.
1. Cheer the sight words
This activity comes from the classic series, Month by Month Phonics, by Patricia M. Cunningham and Dorothy Hall. Each week, the teacher or parent lists five sight words on a chart. For no more than 10 minutes a day, students cheer, snap, or clap each word.
When you cheer the sight words, you say the letter name rather than the sound because these words don’t follow the rules.
Make it fun. If you’re in a classroom setting or you have more than one child, choose a child to be the ‘cheerleader’ and come to the front of the room. This child will lead the cheer. Give him/her some pom-poms to shake.
Cheer the word together. Clap or snap as you say each letter name and then cheer the word again. Give a great big cheer for the word at the end. If you have wiggly kids, get them out of their seats to jump up and down while you do this. Do an especially big jump for the final cheer.
This activity is multi-level because some students will already know how to read the words, but they might not know how to spell them. By cheering the words, children will be able to practice both skills at the same time.
Here is the way I’ve posted our ‘Word Wall’ words to cheer while we’re homeschooling. My eldest had spelling words assigned from his teacher so I put those on the green background. For my youngest, I chose some basic sight words from a word list. His words are on the blue background.
When we finish working with these words, I’ll hang them up on a large piece of butcher paper organized alphabetically so my children can look at it when they’re writing.
2. Arm spelling
This technique comes from Orton-Gillingham’s ‘red word’ method. It’s a kinesthetic approach, a learning style in which children will get to carry out a physical activity while they learn. This is great for young children and active children.
Spelling ‘red words’ or sight words down your arm can help imprint these words in your memory as you think of the actions associated with the word as well.
To use this technique, do the following:
- Hold a card featuring the sight word in the non-writing hand.
- With the writing hand, tap the word and say each letter name moving down the arm from the shoulder to the wrist.
- Slide your hand down your arm and say the word again, after you’ve spelled it by arm tapping.
Here is a video to demonstrate this technique:
For more ‘red word’ ideas, here’s a helpful post by Karina Richland, author of the Pride Reading Program: “How to Teach Orton-Gillingham Red Words.”
3. Graph Paper Spelling
I learned this technique on a teacher training course years ago. It’s a great way to help children read and spell sight words. Not only are they writing the words, but they’re looking at the shapes the words make. For some children who struggle with spelling, it helps to visualize the word. This technique will allow them to see a picture of the word in their mind. It also teaches correct handwriting alignment and how to differentiate between vowels and consonants.
- Graph paper with large squares
- red marker or colored pencil
- blue marker or colored pencil
- black marker
Steps for Graph Paper Spelling
1. Write the word so the tall letters like ‘t’ and ‘h’ take up two graph squares. I compare letters to houses and say these letters to into the 2nd story. The letter ‘y’ goes down into the basement and takes up the middle square and lower square.
2. Outline the shape of the word. Discuss what the shape looks like much the way you try to identify animals and shapes in clouds. What does the shape of the word look like? Children often see a shoe or a truck in the word shapes. They come up with really creative comparisons when you ask this question.
3. Trace the vowels with the red colored pencil/marker and write a small ‘v’ above them to show that these are the vowels.
4. Trace the consonants with the blue colored pencil and write a small ‘c’ above these to show that they are consonants.
By graphing the sight words you’ll not only help children learn how to spell them, but you’ll also teach them the difference between vowels and consonants. When children see the shape of the word, it might help them remember the spelling. If it looks like a shoe, the child will know there is a tall letter at the end of the word. The color pattern made by the vowels also helps struggling spellers.
4. Beat the clock
I often use this technique with my son to help him memorize his sight words and read them fluently.
When he first takes home a word list from his teacher, we read the words and practice them a few times. Then, I challenge him to a game of ‘beat the clock‘.
If he’s still learning to read the words, I volunteer to go first. We set the timer on my phone to see how fast I am able to read the list. I read the words slowly and purposely make a few mistakes so my son will feel better about making mistakes himself.
By the time I finish and record a really slow time, he’s ready to try it.
When I time my son, we record his reading time. The next day, he tries to beat his time (and mine). We usually practice the list several times until he’s mastered the words.
5. Read the rainbow
Whether you’re homeschooling or teaching in a classroom, it helps to set up a sight word program (if your school doesn’t already have one in place). There are several ways to do it. I like to ‘read the rainbow’ because it is colorful and visual for kids.
Depending on the age of your child, divide your grade level sight word list into groups of 5, 10, or 20 words. Copy each set onto a different colored piece of paper: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Each time your child masters the set of words on the colored paper, they earn a rainbow sticker. Or, you can have your child paint or color a stripe on a large rainbow poster. When your child completes the rainbow, then he’s mastered the sight words for the year. The rainbow visual offers a good incentive to learn the words. By receiving a sticker or coloring a shade of the rainbow, the child can see his/her progress.
If your teacher sends home sight words lists, use these activities to help your child memorize the words. If not, see the link below and get started on sight word practice today!
The reading mama has free K-2 sight word lists and checklists you can get when you subscribe to her newsletter.
Here’s a sight word list for 3rd grade.
Here is the Fry Word List of 1,000 sight words. You can divide these up into your own small word lists. These are useful for children of all ages. You may want to do a pre-assessment to see which words your child already know and which one he/she needs to work on.
I hope these 5 activities give you some tools to use when you need to help your child or student with sight words. Please let me know if you have any questions or other great ways to help kids practice sight words.