As a former teacher and current literacy tutor, I have seen too many kids suffer needlessly from what I call "Sight Word Syndrome." And it's not a pretty sight.
What is "Sight Word Syndrome?" Sight Word Syndrome is a condition characterized by the inability to sound out new or unfamiliar words, often accompanied by the frequent miscalling of seemingly "known" words. Most kids afflicted with Sight Word Syndrome (SWS) appear to be readers as long as the text they are asked to read is kept within their "sight word vocabulary" and/or is either memorized or extremely predictable in nature. Once text becomes more difficult, however, more and more words are miscalled, mumbled over, or skipped altogether. This can make it extremely difficult for the person afflicted with SWS to accurately comprehend what is being "read," and often leads to increased frustration, tantrums, and tears. Generally, this condition does not go away on its own. If not treated effectively, it can become a lifelong ailment.
Unfortunately, more and more parents and teachers are relying on having their kids learn lists of "sight words" to get them reading. The result? Far too many kids who glance at words to read them, rather than through them, from left to right. This causes similar looking words to look the same to those with SWS. As a result, you might hear them call out "in" instead of on, "what" instead of want, or "very" instead of every. The word "that" might become with, "where" might become here, and "tell" might become tall. Even a word as simple as "I" might be confused with the word A.
And it doesn't stop there. As these "sight word readers" progress, they often make more costly switches, turning words like "deserved" into discovered, "stretched" into screeched, and "scene" into since. When this happens, comprehending the text supposedly "read" becomes more and more difficult. Even the smartest kids with the best vocabulary can begin to struggle and fail. In many cases, kids who used to love books often begin to hate them, creating another problem altogether.
So what should you do? Teach your beginning readers how letters work together to make words. Start by showing them how to sound out 2 and 3 letter words like is, in, on, him, his, hat, big, can, fit, bug, red, etc. Once they are comfortable doing this, show them how to sound out words with beginning and ending blends such as and, flag, just, sled, sent, grab, hand, fast, long, etc. Then teach them the "tricks" (letters and/or letter combinations that create new sounds when they appear together or in a certain position in words, such as sh, ch, th, er, ou, oo, etc.), and show them how to read (and write) words that contain these. This is when the world of reading REALLY opens up to them. Words like out, she, gave, like, take, want, them, these, never, were, are, tall, weird, different, chilly, deserved, discovered, etc. are all easily decodable once you know the "tricks!" After your kids have a decent base, get your kids reading Dr. Seuss books, and help them sound out and adjust any weird words that don't follow the "tricks." Then move them into whatever trade books interest them. Finally, introduce them to beginning chapter books. This process not only teaches them the "sight words," but how to read just about any other word they come across as well. This is what real reading is about. Being able to read. Anything. Not just memorized or predictable text.
Don't delay! Throw away the confusing "sight word lists," and teach your kids how to really read instead. They are counting on you.
All the best and much success,
Author of Kinders Can! READ and WRITE! (New, updated 2013 edition now available at www.KindersCanReadandWrite.com!)