Below are the three commonly used meanings of the term “sight words.” The first two are definitions that teachers are typically thinking of when using the term “sight words” in conversations with colleagues, students, and parents.
1. Words that cannot be decoded [supposedly] and must, therefore [supposedly], be memorized as wholes.
Yet, there are no words that are completely impervious to decoding. A handful of words get close, such as “eye” (the ‘y’ is sounded) and “one” (the /n/ is sounded). Let’s use the term “irregular words” or “tricky words,” a term used in the Jolly Phonics program, for harder-to-decode words. The term “tricky words” signals to students that their difficulties with these words is not their fault.
2. High-frequency words.
The term “high-frequency words” is clear. So, let’s use that term when that is exactly what we mean. Many high-frequency words are easily decodable.
3. Words that have been decoded successfully often enough to be recognized now “on sight.”
As noted by reading researcher Linnea C. Ehri, decoding words multiple times helps cement them in memory! Skilled readers have a far larger sight vocabulary than just the words on the Dolch or Fry sight word lists often referred to by teachers.
“Orthographic mapping (OM) involves the formation of letter-sound connections to bond the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of specific words in memory. It explains how children learn to read words by sight. . . .Teaching students the strategy of pronouncing novel words aloud as they read text silently activates OM and helps them build their vocabularies. Because spelling-sound connections are retained in memory, they impact the processing of phonological constituents and phonological memory for words.” Linnea C. Ehri (2014) Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning, Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:1, 5-21, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356
Often, when words have several definitions, the context in which they are used clarifies the meaning. That is rarely the case, however, with the term “sight words.” So, let’s either avoid using the term, or quickly follow up with the definition we are referring to.
The first meaning (words that cannot be decoded) is the most problematic, because it encourages instruction which asks students to learn words as wholes, an inefficient, and perhaps even harmful, method of teaching reading.