Phonics,  Sight Words

Sight Words Aren’t Just “Little” Words

I was scrolling through my Instagram feed the other day when I came across an image that made me stop and do a double take (and not in a good way):

Now, I’m admittedly not an expert in reading pedagogy for young children, but even I can tell that there’s something wrong with this picture.

It seems obvious that is should be treated as a sight word because, well, it’s one of the most common words in the entire language and because it follows a semi-irregular phonetic pattern.

Had is a different story altogether. Yes, it’s short, and yes, it’s super common, but the differences end there. There are a lot of words that end in -ad and that follow the exact same phonetic pattern:


To name just a handful.

If teachers are actually requiring students to memorize had without ensuring that they master its component sounds, they are passing up an opportunity to help children identify scads (!) of common words—on their own, even without obvious context clues.

To me that just seems like common sense.

Now, to be fair, in a blog post for Scholastic, veteran kindergarten teacher Brian K. Smith makes the point that a teacher might choose to initially treat certain more complex phonetically regular words as sight words in order to help students read slightly more challenging texts. He advises, however, that teachers make clear to students when they are doing so, and why, because otherwise:

Telling students they simply need to memorize these words can create misconceptions and mistrust. For students who struggle with reading, these misconceptions can create even more misunderstanding of the code that words follow.

That strikes me as an entirely reasonable approach, one that an experienced teacher can adapt to the particulars of the students involved. But that is a best-case scenario, managed by someone who knows how to look at the whole picture and head off problems before they begin. Suffice it to say many teacher lack the expertise for this kind of global thinking.

Moreover, in this case the logic doesn’t hold up: had is far too simple to get treated as a sight word for the sake of pushing students ahead.  -Ad is a such a high-frequency ending that children probably aren’t at the point where they can read books independently at all until they know it.

I actually wonder if there’s a sort of categorization problem going on here with teachers, similar to something I used to observe in my ACT students.

Let me explain: one of the most commonly tested errors on the ACT involves the incorrect placement of a comma before a preposition. In order to identify this error securely—as opposed to just thinking “that sounds weird” or “you don’t need to pause there”—it is of course necessary to know what a preposition is.

I didn’t learn much grammar in elementary school, but one of the few things I did learn was what prepositions were: “location” or “time” words. To figure out whether a word was a preposition, we were encouraged to place it before the tree, e.g., in the treeon the treearound the tree, etc. Using that little trick, I was able to form an abstract category called “prepositions” and easily determine whether new words fit into it, without ever having to memorize long lists of words individually.

When I started tutoring, however, I quickly discovered that many of my students (though not all) had an inordinate amount of difficulty with that task: they did not seem able to form a general category for prepositions. As a result, I was forced to spend ridiculous amount of time drilling them on individual prepositions.

I really disliked doing this, and it struck me as a hideously inefficient way to teach, but because they could not reliably apply a big-picture, conceptual understanding of prepositions to terms we hadn’t explicitly discussed, or had discussed in another context, it was the only way I could get them to correctly answer questions involving commas and prepositions. (Luckily, most such questions involved only 10-12 or so common examples. But still.)

The difficulty, from what I could eventually gather, lay in the length of the words. Prepositions were usually short, but then again, so were other kinds of words, like, say, conjunctions. You could say to the tree, but you could also say and the tree. So why wasn’t and a preposition? To make matters worse, some prepositions also doubled as conjunctions. Trying to recall an abstract categorization like “position” when differentiating between to and and was too much of a strain on their working memories, given how many other new concepts they were also trying to digest.

Essentially, they had difficulty distinguishing between appearance and function.

I suspect that something roughly comparable may be going on with teachers and sight words.

One website I looked at pointed out, for example, that “oftentimes the terms sight words and high-frequency words are used interchangeably.”

If that’s in fact the case—and I’m going to assume it is—then there’s a real conceptual muddle being promoted. Essentially, “short and common” is being confused with “phonetically irregular.” But those are two completely different things.

In any case, if new teachers are writing in to random education websites asking what sight words are, then it’s fair to assume that there’s a lot of really, really poor training going on. And if teachers are selling/buying sight-word worksheets with had on Teachers Pay Teachers, that’s a really bad sign.

One of the things I eventually learned to do as a tutor was to focus on concepts that could be transferred to the greatest number of other questions, and to more or less ignore those that applied only to the particular question at hand.

For example, I spent a huge amount of time going over questions that tested things like subject-verb and pronoun agreement (concepts that, once mastered, could be used to answer many new questions) and almost no time on questions that tested things like idioms (you either know them or you don’t, and there’s no way to transfer the knowledge).

I would also regularly ask students to explain to me how else a question might have been asked, the point being that a given concept could be tested in many possible ways and that they were responsible for understanding the underlying ideas well enough to apply them regardless.

When I trained tutors, however, I almost invariably noticed that they had a tendency to get caught up (over-)explaining questions with very low general applicability. The result was that they wasted a lot of time on material that could not be transferred to other situations, or explained answers in ways that did not emphasize their applicability to other questions. The entire discussion remained focused on only the particular question at hand.

I confess that watching this drove me positively up the wall.

It would not surprise me in the least if novice kindergarten/first-grade teachers—and probably some more experienced ones as well—were falling into a similar trap. They’re looking at individual common words but not thinking about what else students can get out of learning them.

So words that are short and common may be phonetically irregular, like one or were, but they may also be perfectly regular, like sad or mad. However, it may not even occur to an inexperienced teacher that the question when determining what should count as a sight word should not be, “Is this word short and common”? but rather, “Will learning this word help students learn lots of other words”? (Or, more simply, “Is this word phonetically regular with lots of rhymes”?) They may not even realize that the question needs to be asked.

And if they don’t, children are essentially being asked to treat phonetically regular words—easily decodable words—the way my former students treated prepositions: as discrete, isolated units, disconnected from the larger universe of sounds and words.