Sight Words: More Than Just Memorization
Did you know that our brains don’t store words visually, but rather as a series of sounds?
Did you know that we teach ourselves most of the words in our sight word lexicon (our sight word lexicon includes any word you can read quickly and effortlessly)? It’s true! And it all has to do with how we store words.
So let’s set the record straight: words are not stored visually or as whole words. We store words as a string of sound sequences. That’s right – we store words as a series of sounds! David Kilpatrick describes this as an oral/mental filing system (Kilpatrick, Equipped for Reading Success). When we read, we reference this lightning-fast oral filing system and link the letter sequences in words to match the order of the sounds in spoken words that we already stored in our brain. This mental process is referred to as orthographic mapping.
So why is having an understanding of how words are stored in our brain so important? Because it helps to make sure that how we teach and coach our kids may be different than just making them go through endless flashcards and word lists.
Since orthographic mapping is a mental process and not a skill, we can’t technically teach it. We can, however, teach the subskills that drive word mapping. Since words are stored as a series of sounds, the most critical subskill is the ability to manipulate (add, delete and substitute) the sounds in spoken language automatically. For example, can you take the word “cat” switch out the middle sound for /u/, and easily arrive at the new word “cut.”
Once this skill is in place (also known as phonemic proficiency), words can be easily mapped into our sight word memory. And even more exciting, we can use the patterns we already have stored to self-teach new words. This is why students with dyslexia and other struggling readers need phonemic awareness activities directly taught within the structure of their reading lesson.
Another subskill of orthographic mapping is automatic sound-letter recognition. A student must know the letter names and the sounds they represent. Once learners have automatic letter-sound skills and are able to segment and blend sounds in spoken language, they are ready to begin orthographically mapping. Once a word is mapped to our sight word memory, it almost never gets erased (Really Great Reading). A typically developing child will need between 1 to 5 exposures of an unfamiliar word before it is anchored in their sight word memory. A child with dyslexia will need more practice and repetition before a word is permanently stored.
So how can I help my child? It is critical to approach reading as a sound-letter relationship and talk about the sound/letter relationships in any new word -whether it is fully decodable or if it has some “tricky” parts (Kilpatrick, Equipped for Reading Success). When looking at a new word, have your student repeat it first and ask “How many sounds do you hear?” It can be helpful to use manipulatives to segment sounds in words – including your fingers! Next, discuss the sounds you hear – What is the first sound? What is the last sound? What vowel sound do you hear? Is it long or short? Now compare the written word to the spoken word. What letter/s spell the first sound? What letter/s spell the last sound? What letter/s spell the vowel sound? Is it a vowel team? Do you notice a digraph or a blend in this word? Drawing explicit attention to the letter-sound relationships in words is powerful in aiding the mental process of orthographic mapping.
When reading with your child, here are some helpful tips for providing feedback that can help map letters to sounds:
When a child is stuck on a word, pause. What phonics patterns might be lacking here? What part of this word is tricky?
Let’s look at some examples:
Sample Word: street
In this word, <ee> spells the /ee/ sound. Now try sounding it out. Great! Now smooth it out – blend the sounds and say it smoothly.
Sample Word: myth
In this word, <y> spells the /i/ sound. Now try sounding it out. Great! Now smooth it out – blend the sounds and say it smoothly.
Sample word: path
In this word, <th> spells the /th/ sound. Now try sounding it out. Great! Now smooth it out – blend the sounds and say it smoothly.
Sample word: tandem
In this word, the second vowel is unstressed (it’s a schwa vowel sound). The letter <e> is spelling the /uh/ sound. Now try sounding it out. Great! Now smooth it out – blend the sounds and say it smoothly.
Sample word: said
In this word, <ai> spells the /e/ sound. Now try sounding it out. Great! Now smooth it out – blend the sounds and say it smoothly.
Make the tricky words sticky! Really Great Reading has a great resource for mapping sight words: https://www.reallygreatreading.com/heart-word-magic
Simple Graphic Organizer for Orthograph Mapping. Request here!