What the Science of Reading Tells Us About Sight Words

Header image featuring a girl holding up sight words.

Our thoughts about teaching sight words have shifted from how things used to be. The infamous word walls are out, and the Science of Reading and its role in understanding sight words are in. In teaching young minds to read and write, understanding the science behind it is paramount.

We’ll begin by defining the Science of Reading and its relevance to sight words, making clear distinctions between sight words, heart words, and high-frequency words. We’ll also unravel how the Science of Reading guides us in understanding how our brains process words, moving beyond rote memorization.

Our journey doesn’t stop there; we’ll also discuss two vital elements – Phonological Awareness and Orthographic Mapping – providing practical tips for effectively applying these concepts. To top it off, I’ll point you toward ready-to-use resources to help you apply these principles. Whether you’re a teacher in a classroom or a parent at home, you’ll find valuable tools to nurture a love for reading in your students or children. So, let’s embark on this enlightening journey together and unlock the secrets of the Science of Reading and its relation to sight words.

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What is the Science of Reading?

The Science of Reading is a comprehensive approach to understanding how reading and language development occur. It draws on research from various fields, such as psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience, to provide a deeper insight into the intricate process of learning to read. This approach emphasizes that reading is not simply about memorizing words but is rooted in the connections between spoken and written language.

One key aspect of the Science of Reading is the emphasis on phonological awareness, which involves recognizing and manipulating the sounds of spoken words. It highlights the importance of understanding the relationships between letters and sounds, as well as the significance of decoding words systematically. This plays a large role when it comes to sight words. In essence, the Science of Reading transforms reading instruction from passive memorization of words into an active process of understanding the structure of language, making it a powerful tool for educators and learners alike.

If you want to learn about more ways to bring the Science of Reading into your classroom, you can read that right here.

If you do not have access to training about the Science of Reading, I highly recommend Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers by Louisa Cook Moats and 7 Mighty Moves: Research-Backed, Classroom-Tested Strategies to Ensure K-to-3 Reading Success (The Science of Reading in Practice) by Lindsay Kemeny.

What is a sight word?

Early on, it was thought that the term “sight word” meant a word that appeared frequently in text and needed to be memorized as an entire unit. This was because it was believed that the majority of sight words could not be sounded out. After all, the English language, a lot of the time, is irregular and inconsistent.

Let’s look at the Science of Reading and accurately define “sight word.” In Equipped for Reading Success by David A. Kilpatrick, he uses the meaning that researchers use: “A sight word is a familiar written word that is recognized instantly, automatically, and effortlessly, without sounding it out or guessing. It does not matter if the word is common or uncommon, phonically regular or irregular. Its only defining feature is that it is stored in memory, and it is instantly and effortlessly recognized.” He then discusses sight word vocabulary, which is all of the words a student knows and can instantly recognize.

Let’s define all of the terms when it comes to sight words. 

Sight Word: any word that is recognized instantly, regardless of how it is spelled, regularly or irregularly

High-Frequency Word: this is a word that frequently appears in written English

Regular High-Frequency Word: a word that frequently appears in text and has sound-spelling correspondences that are consistent and reliable (e.g., hiscan)

Temporarily Irregular High-Frequency Word: this is a word that frequently appears in text and is decodable once students have learned the phonics skills contained in the words (e.g., makefor)

Permanently Irregular High-Frequency Word: this is a word that frequently appears in text and has irregular sound-spelling correspondences (e.g., said, two)

Irregular words are where “heart” words come in. When spelling a high-frequency word, the irregular part of the word is marked with a heart so students can remember that the letter sounds differ from the spelling. They need to learn that part by heart.

What the Science of Reading Says about Sight Words

The Science of Reading offers helpful insights into how our brains process sight words, fundamentally reshaping how we approach early literacy. Rather than relying on rote memorization, this approach emphasizes the brain’s capacity to recognize and process words efficiently.

The brain processes sight words through orthographic mapping (we’ll go into more detail below). This process involves the brain forming strong and lasting connections between the letter-sound relationship. By developing this skill, young readers become capable of instantly recognizing and understanding a wide array of words, contributing to reading fluency. This is in stark contrast to the traditional approach of memorizing individual words as isolated entities.

By moving away from rote memorization, the Science of Reading empowers educators to help students understand the structure of language. This shift from passive memorization to active processing is transformative. It equips young readers with the ability to decode and comprehend words systematically.

Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is a fundamental concept within the Science of Reading that is pivotal in early literacy development. It refers to the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds of spoken words. This skill encompasses a range of auditory tasks, from recognizing rhyme, alliteration, and segmenting words into syllables to identifying individual sounds or phonemes within words.

When it comes to sight words, the focus is on phonemic awareness, not phonological awareness. Phonological awareness focuses on the larger chunks of words. Phonemic awareness, a type of phonological awareness, focuses on the smallest unit of sound and the manipulation of those sounds.

Storing words into our permanent memory requires skills at the phoneme level. For example, when students learn to read, they encounter many short words that differ by only one phoneme or sound. Having skills at the phoneme level ensures that they can pay attention to the sound sequence.

Phonological awareness cheat sheet

As a resource to support your teaching efforts, I’ve prepared a phonological awareness cheat sheet freebie that you can access to assist in your phonological awareness instruction.

Orthographic Mapping

Orthographic mapping offers a deep understanding of how we internalize and recognize written words. It’s essentially the mental process of storing words in order to retrieve them immediately and effortlessly. This is not based on the visual memorization of words but on matching letters and letter sequences to the sounds of spoken words. This requires a lot of skills working in concert and includes phonemic awareness, letter-sound knowledge, and meaning. When readers can connect phonemes to graphemes and connect them to meaning, the word is recognized automatically or read by sight.

Utilizing orthographic mapping in teaching involves helping students develop the skills necessary to build these connections between letters and sounds. This process includes guiding students to understand and internalize the spelling patterns and irregularities of words. By doing so, educators equip young readers with the tools to decode words systematically rather than relying on rote memorization. This approach is transformative, as it shifts the focus from passively memorizing individual words to actively processing and comprehending the structure of language.

Orthographic mapping is a cornerstone in the journey toward proficient and confident reading. By deepening our understanding of this concept and implementing strategies to cultivate it in our students, we foster the development of lifelong reading skills. As we move further into the Science of Reading, we’ll explore practical methods for utilizing orthographic mapping and its role in nurturing skilled readers.

Ready-to-Go Resources

If you’re wondering where to begin when it comes to helping your students grow in their orthographic mapping skills, the perfect place to begin is at your small group table. Remember, orthographic mapping is the mental process we use to take an unfamiliar printed word and turn it into a sight word that we immediately recognize.

By exposing our students to activities that will allow them to practice their word mapping abilities, we are helping them to train a mental habit. After explicit instruction (I do, we do), students need an opportunity to practice this skill independently (you do). Our Short Vowel Word Mapping Mats provide that opportunity, and your students will have a blast building vital reading foundations.

This activity set is more than just a teaching resource; it’s a gateway to confident reading. By connecting sounds to letters through play, students develop strong orthographic mapping skills—the bridge to reading success. We begin with CVC words, and then we transfer the process over to high-frequency words. Just laminate, add dice and a dry-erase marker, and your students will learn in no time!

Our exploration of the Science of Reading and its impact on sight words reveal a profound shift in early literacy instruction. This approach emphasizes the need to move beyond rote memorization and understand the deeper processes at play in reading.

We’ve learned that sight words, those words recognized instantly, are not isolated entities but part of a broader process. The Science of Reading redirects our focus towards actively processing words, which empowers young readers to grasp the language’s structure more effectively.

As educators and parents, we can harness these principles to support the growth of proficient readers. Let’s continue to apply these insights, helping our students and children flourish as lifelong readers.

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