Teaching sight words is a big challenge for teachers because learning them can be a big challenge for their students! These 5 (way too common) misconceptions can make sight word instruction less effective. Learn what they are and what strategies to use instead.
Each of these misconceptions are things that I have heard, learned or seen in other classrooms. Many of them are things that I have taught or believed in my own classroom as well.
Improving the way we are teaching sight words will increase our students’ mastery which results in an increase in their reading fluency. 👏
5 Common Misconceptions about Teaching Sight Words (and How to Avoid Them)
Misconception 1: Sight words and high frequency words are the same thing.
Did you know this already? I didn’t for the longest time and when I did learn it, it kind of blew my mind. 🤯
In fact, I have a whole post about the difference between sight words and high frequency words because I felt like this was so important! I explain how learning that there is a difference changed the way I taught them. You can read more about that here. 🤗
Misconception 2: Students only need to memorize from flashcards.
Before I get going on this one, I want to clarify something: readers have to memorize sight words. Memorizing is essential.
(Also, there is absolutely nothing wrong with utilizing flashcards! I even have a free download for sight word flashcards in this post. I also share my favorite, hands-on way to use them in the classroom. 🤗)
However, only memorizing sight words using flashcards is a big mistake.
It’s really important that students are memorizing the sight words and reading them in context.
Have you ever had a student who could rattle off numbers up to 50 but couldn’t count a number of physical objects lower than 10? We wouldn’t say that student had mastered counting, would we?
It’s the same with sight words. If our students recognize them on a flashcard but don’t identify them within their reading, they don’t really know them.
I created these no prep, easy printable sight word sentences specifically for this reason. Each page targets a single sight word and uses it in 5, easy to read sentences.
Giving my students the chance to read a sight word in context increases their fluency and confidence in reading. It’s a win-win!
Misconception 3: Every student should be learning the same amount of sight words at the same time.
Have you ever eye-rolled at a report card stating the number of sight words a student should have mastered by winter break? 🙄
(Maybe that’s just me. 🤪)
Of course a guideline of the number of words the average student knows by different ages can be helpful. I want to know where the bar research sets is located so I can do my best to help my students reach it.
However, I also know that my students all learn at completely different rates. This is especially apparent when it comes to memorization.
I can’t tell you the number of times I have sent a student on break (with a report card) that has only mastered 4 sight words to have them return recognizing 18.
Is that because they were studying flashcards by the fireplace while snacking on candy cane cookies? NOPE. (At least I hope not! 😅)
It’s like all the sudden, a light goes on. They understand. They remember.
For some students, they practice and practice (and practice some more) and still don’t get it. Then the light turns on and they start to remember. It happens at random times in the school year, but I’ve seen it often enough to be confident that it will happen for most of my students.
When I am teaching sight words, I try to remember this phenomenon. I never teach less or stop encouraging those students, but I do have the ability to hold frustration and fear of report card requirements at bay.
Misconception 4: Students should have the all the time in the world to try to figure out each sight word.
I know, I know. That sounds so harsh! Of course we want to give our students time to think and process information. 🙇♀️🙇🏽♂️
When it comes to sight words though, students have really only mastered them if they can recognize them right away. They should not have to make the first sound, look at all of the letters or even stretch the word out.
They should see it and know it.
When I talk to parents at the beginning of the school year, this is one of those things that I try to really impress upon them. They are going to be hearing about sight words for the rest of this year because they are so important. When they are practicing at home, I want them to make sure they are using the same vocabulary and have the same understanding of mastery.
I also explain this to my students. I believe it’s incredibly important to share things like this with my class. It’s their learning and I want them to take ownership of it! I also want them to understand why I have certain expectations.
I explain to students and their parents that the goal of memorizing sight words is to build fluent readers. Fluent readers do not have to stop to decode words while they are reading. (Also, sight words can’t be decoded anyway so most of the time it is fruitless anyway. 😉)
Setting this expectation with my class sets us all up for success. A mutual understanding is such an important part of building trust within a classroom.
Misconception 5: I should introduce all of the sight words at once.
When I first started teaching, I was definitely guilty of this one. It’s not like I was drilling my students over a hundred words at a time, but I did overwhelm them with too many.
We went over powerpoints, chanting the “pre-primer” list. I gave my students flashcard rings to use at centers that had over a hundred words on them. I tested them over all 220 at one time. (This was no fun for ANYONE, let me tell you. 🤣)
Research shows that our students memorize sight words more effectively when they are learning 10 sight words at a time.
Just 10 words!
I don’t know about you, but this makes me breath a huge sigh of relief. I was so stressed because I didn’t want to teach too few or too many at a time. Learning that research actually proves that 10 is the magic number was really exciting.
A Quick Recap
So, what do we learn from these five misconceptions?
2. Practice sight words in isolation (ex: flashcards) and in context (ex: sight word sentences).
3. Know that each student will learn at their own pace.
4. Mastery = the student can read the sight word immediately.
5. Teach 10 sight words at a time.
I feel so much more confident teaching sight words now that I understand these common misconceptions. Reaching mastery is really about become more fluent readers and that is the main thing I want for my students.
Did you know about any of these misconceptions? Do you have any others to add? I would love to chat below! 👇
If you’re curious about more sight word research, check out this post! I write about the 5 Things you Should Know Before Teaching Sight Words.