Sight words, often also called high frequency sight words, are commonly used words that young children are encouraged to memorize as a whole by sight, so that they can automatically recognize these words in print without having to use any strategies to decode. Sight words were introduced after Whole Language (a similar method) fell out of favor with the education establishment.
Sight words account for a large percentage (up to 75%) of the words used in beginning children's print materials. The advantage for children being able to recognize sight words automatically is that a beginning reader will be able to identify the majority of words in a beginning text before they even attempt to read it; therefore, allowing the child to concentrate on meaning and comprehension as they read without having to stop and decode every single word. Advocates of whole-word instruction believe that being able to recognize a large number of sight words gives students a better start to learning to read.
Recognizing sight words automatically is said to be advantageous for beginning readers because many of these words have unusual spelling patterns, cannot be sounded out using basic phonics knowledge and cannot be represented using pictures. For example, the word "was" does not follow a usual spelling pattern, as the middle letter "a" makes an /ɒ~ʌ/ sound and the final letter "s" makes a /z/ sound, nor can the word be associated with a picture clue since it denotes an abstract state (existence).
A number of sight word lists have been compiled and published; among the most popular are the Dolch sight words and the magic 100 words. These lists have similar attributes, as they all aim to divide words into levels which are prioritised and introduced to children according to frequency of appearance in beginning readers' texts. Although many of the lists have overlapping content, the order of frequency of sight words varies and can be argued depending on contexts such as geographical location, empirical data, samples used, and year of publication.
Contrary opinion was expressed by Rudolf Flesch in his famous 1955 book Why Johnny Can't Read. Flesch blamed sight-words for the increase of functional illiteracy in the US. Exponents of synthetic phonics argue that children must first learn the alphabet, then the sounds represented by the letters, then the blends of those sounds, and that children should never memorize words as visual designs.
The term sight words is often confused with the recognition of words by sight, or otherwise called sight vocabulary, which is defined as each person's own bank of vocabulary that the person recognizes instantly without having to decode.
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