In September, I will be starting my 18th year of teaching. Wow! I’ve changed many of my practices over the years. One of my most recent changes though is one that has me thinking the most. It’s my approach to teaching sight words.
Many Kindergarten and Grade 1 educators probably have an opinion on how to best support children in quickly recalling sight words. For years, I was an advocate of “popcorn words.” I even taught The Popcorn Song to the tune of Mary Had A Little Lamb. One of my most embarrassing moments as a teacher happened due to popcorn words, and that stray kernel of popcorn, which ended up lodged in my ear. 🙂 In the past couple of years though, the updated Kindergarten Program Document had me wondering about the value in teaching these words out of context. My teaching partner, Paula, and I had many discussions about this, and we decided on a different approach.
A couple of years ago, we figured that children tend to learn these words as they’re exposed to them more in books. After reading them again and again, they do so automatically, and then slowly, these words make it into their writing. We thought that this might be more of a developmental approach, so instead of highlighting the words for everyone, we just explored these words as kids came across them in texts. While this worked to a degree, when I completed the D.R.A. at the end of the school year, I noticed that it was the slowing down and attempting to sound out sight words, which impacted on some children getting to even higher reading levels. While most children met year-end, grade level expectations, I wondered if a better sight word knowledge would have led to even greater success. But then again, is a word song, a word wall, and flash cards the way to go?
Paula and I talked about these concerns. We still didn’t think that going back to The Popcorn Song and popcorn word games were the answer, but we wondered what more was possible. Was it a matter of being even more deliberate in our introduction and review of these grade appropriate sight words? For the past couple of years, we really worked at linking reading and writing, and having children read back to us what they wrote. This past year, we extended this thinking even more, and had children blend sounds to also read what other children wrote. Students started to see themselves as even more capable readers and writers, when they knew that what they wrote was accessible to their peers, and what their peers wrote, was accessible to them.
This morning, Brayden saw Carys’ writing. He wondered what it said. I suggested that he read it. He knew some words by sight and sounded out others. Gives a good look at the sight words to review. cc @batenburg_sandy pic.twitter.com/2Z1Qm3GZjF
— Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca) May 17, 2018
I was so inspired by what Tomek, Trinity, and Brayden did, that I invited two more students to join me out at this graffiti wall on my prep today. They started by reading the words together. Milla finished the sentence in her own. Then they thought about what to write. I tried to get them to think about growth in learning. Milla really wanted to focus on her writing growth. She remembered what I showed her from her time in JK. As we spoke more, she added more details to her work. We even looked at the silent W in “write.” Her ability to self-reflect here almost brought me to tears. ❤️❤️❤️ When we look at our @hwdsb goal, this work aligns with that! SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #ctinquiry #teachersofinstagram
Another child wrote down a list of AT words. So what did she learn? We thought of a sentence together. She looked at Milla’s work to find “write,” and Milla helped spell it for her. Meanwhile Wyatt came and was excited to add that he learned how to read and write. I love how he kept proofreading his work as he wrote it. A child in ELP 3 worked with Milla to write his sentence. He learned how to be a “best friend” to Milla, and it’s this kind of growth that is also so important. ❤️❤️❤️ SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #ctinquiry #teachersofinstagram
Meanwhile, Brayden came back to the graffiti wall. He thought of some more things that he learned how to do this year, and read through his work as he wrote it. With @hwdsb’s goal linking with reading, it makes me happy to see the number of kids that now see themselves as readers. I think this also aligns with the well-being goal. ❤️❤️❤️ SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #ctinquiry #teachersofinstagram
But we knew that students still needed more opportunities to work with sight words. Over the year, many children enjoyed writing us notes to ask for things or to express their feelings. At first, we either read the notes or had the students read them to us. Then we thought of a new idea: we began writing the students back! We really tried to think carefully about the words that we included in these responses:
- varying the difficulty depending on the child.
- choosing words which students could sound out.
- ensuring that many sight words were part of our notes.
Trinity wanted to go and get the milk with Alba today. She wrote this note, and Alba signed her name. Alba even picked up some of the words through contextual cues. When I wrote them back, I also suggested that Trinity focus on lowercase letters. She did so in her reply to me … and used part of my question in her answer, which I love! An authentic reason to write. ❤️ SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #ctinquiry
We extended this even more by trying to embed both educator and student writing within different play opportunities. It was amazing what happened when we brought some speech bubbles over to the Lego table and into the building area. Sometimes just having one of us start the writing led to children continuing it.
Edward came to me with this speech bubble today. Using it with the doll house dolls they made today. They’ve transferred their discussion to speech bubbles. Can then work on reading them as they play. Like how they continued this after Miss B. provoked the idea. pic.twitter.com/4nYHEF7FM8
— Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca) March 19, 2018
The kids were using the homemade dolls in here, but not adding new sticky note speech bubbles. I went into the space and started writing down what they said. Then Trinity started reading what I wrote, and Trinity and Ben (with Brooke’s help) chimed in with some writing. pic.twitter.com/7loIIITWcn
— Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca) March 20, 2018
The speech bubbles at the LEGO table today led to some children drawing and writing some conversations on the bulletin board. Then after school, N. made a comic strip showing a conversation between a person and a dog. We moved the LEGO table sideways again to allow for more kids around it and more access to the bulletin board for some more comic creations. Great thinking, @paulacrockett! Let’s see what tomorrow brings. SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #ctinquiry
While we didn’t work on teaching specific sight words in isolation, seeing, experiencing, reading, and writing these words in different play situations helped with greater recall of them. Before long, students were reading more sight words than they had in the past, and my reading assessment concerns from the year before were no longer an issue.
Reading RACING CARS book around the eating table today with Brady. Way more fluent now. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/hK16Dd7bBF
— Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca) June 19, 2018
I share all of this because in the end, sight words were taught exclusively in context, without even the introduction of a word wall. We spoke with our reading specialist about this, and she came up with the idea of adding a ring of sight words to our writing table. While we didn’t focus on them, the words were there if students wanted to access them for their writing. Most did not, and those that did, tended to just copy the words instead of focusing on what they said. This was something that I noticed a lot with the “popcorn words,” and was a big reason why I was happy to try another approach.
I keep thinking about what a speech pathologist taught me a few years ago. Her fear was that if children see and learn conventional spelling before playing with letter-sounds, they will not use these sounds in their writing or to assist them in reading. She also felt that if we were going to have a word wall, we should look at adding digraphs as separate on the wall, so that the focus was on the letter-sounds instead of the names. To me, this always seemed to extend the wall even more, and I wondered how much children would use this resource to assist with reading and writing. Is it just the thing to do, or is it something that would truly make a difference for them? Word walls though have been around — and popular — since I started teaching, and while I absolutely support the approach that we’ve taken these past few years, I wonder if there’s something that I’m missing here. If we’re using word walls, why are we doing so, and if we’re not, what might be any potential drawbacks for kids? Could the same questions be applied to teaching sight words in isolation? Before another school year begins, I’d like to open up the conversation that may cause some heated debates among primary educators, but I think is worth thinking and talking about.