The Secret Reason Sight Words Suck and What to Teach Instead

I have a little secret for you … sight words suck! You might be thinking, hey hang on, my children get sight words from school and they work! Why do they suck? Should I stop doing the homework? What do you mean they don’t work?

Woah … let me explain … Yes, my opinion might be a little bit controversial but read on to the end and you will see what I mean, why sight words aren’t the most effective teaching tool, and what to do instead!

Are sight words bad?

I wouldn’t go as far to say that sight words are bad. They're just not … that great. They aren’t the best use of your child’s time, attention or memory. This is because sight words depend on rote learning.

Rote learning means that we memorise facts, information, even patterns. This is what happens when kids “learn” sight words. They memorise a bunch of words. They cannot “read” these words, they just recognise them from rote learning them.

Are sight words decodable?

Why yes many, many sight words are in fact decodable! We want our children to be learning to read, spell and by extension decode using synthetic phonics principles. Synthetic phonics is based on the idea that there is a code to the English language and by learning the code, we can learn to decode (read) and encode (spell). You might be interested in learning more about synthetic phonics here.

When we teach synthetic phonics, children learn the initial code first. They usually start with the letters s, a, t, p, i and n. These sounds spell many words and thus children learn to read and write very simple words and sentences. They are then gradually exposed to more and more sounds and words that are decodable. That means that they can “read” using the code they have learnt.

Many of the common 200 high frequency sight words are in fact decodable.

There is no need for students to memorise or guess words, as they can rely on their phonics knowledge and their skill of decoding to read new and unfamiliar words.

If you teach a child to memorise 10 words, they can only “read” 10 words. If a child memorises 10 sounds, they can read; 350 three sound words, 4320 four sound words and 21650 five sound words.

Are sight words phonics?

No sight words are not phonics. However in most synthetic phonics programs there will be a focus on irregular words. These are words that are not considered to be decodable.

Each of the phonics programs will have a name for these words like tricky words, or heart words. These are the words we want to explicitly teach to our children so that they can read harder texts and write more interesting sentences.

Are sight words irregular words?

Yes a better name for sight words would be irregular words. Take the word “was” for example. Many children will write “woz” instead of “was” as these are the letters they are taught to represent those sounds. W - /w/, o - /o/ and z - /z/.

It is important that once they have mastered some of the initial code that they begin to learn the exceptions for these common words so that they can begin to read more difficult texts and write better sentences.

I really like the way heart words are taught, as they still focus on what part of the word is decodable and put a little heart under the parts of the word that aren’t.

What should I do if my child gets sent home sight words?

First of all … don’t go thinking your child's teacher doesn’t know what they are doing. I am sure they are very well trained. Many schools have still not adopted synthetic phonics programs and will be using different literacy programs. This doesn’t mean they are bad. It takes time to change an entire school's literacy programs. Many schools have a school wide policy and this may include sending home certain banks of sight words in each year level. Your child’s teacher may be constrained by what their school says they need to do.

If you are concerned about your child receiving sight words for homework, have a chat to their teacher and ask why.

If you want to adapt them, you could teach your child which ones are decodable and which ones aren’t.

What Should I Teach Instead of Sight Words?

If you want to teach reading yourself, I would suggest following synthetic phonics programs like Sounds Write or Letters and Sounds. Letters and Sounds is great because there are lots of free and cheap resources that you can download and make yourself.

Letters and Sounds calls their irregular words “tricky” words and each phase has a set of tricky words that are taught in that phase. These lists are a great place to start introducing your child to ability-level “tricky” words.

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