December 2, 2011

Teaching Sight Words? Try Sight Phrases Instead!

by Jennifer Harness Ayers, Guest Blogger

For me, teaching is a mission.  It is my heart and soul.  Because of this, I am like the little girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead (when she was bad, she was really bad—but when she was good, she was wonderful!).  When I think I am doing a great job, life is great.  When I feel like I am struggling to reach my students, life is the pits.  

I hit a dry spell in my teaching a few years ago, as I was teaching my struggling readers in guided reading.  We were going over and over the main 200 sight words, but there was little progress being made.  I had flashcards, and worksheets (yes, I admit it), and cloze passages.  I drilled, flashed cards, referred to context clues, highlighted the sight words with tape, and sent lists home with students to practice.  But, yet, there was little progress made.  I decided then, that I needed to do some research.  What were the best practices for teaching sight words? As I researched, I of course read the information published by Dr. Frye (and yes, there is a real Dr. Frye—he is not an imaginary character that a publisher made up like I thought!), Fountas and Pinnell, and Dr. Timothy Rasinski.  All of them had excellent ideas for teaching sight words, but it was Dr. Rasinski and his book, The Fluent Reader, which helped me to understand that there was more to sight words than just teaching them in isolation.  He recommended teaching the sight words in phrases.  I was ecstatic. Of course, one of the first thoughts that went through my mind was, ‘Why didn’t I think of this?’
I went to school the next day, armed with a plan. By teaching sight word PHRASES instead of words in isolation, I could build vocabulary, fluency, and schema.  I began teaching phrasing in order to show that these words help build a vision that the author has already created….it is up to us as readers to break the code so that we can ‘see the video in our head’.  So, instead of teaching the word ‘please’, I might teach the phrase ‘please pass the’ and use the sight word phrase to create detailed sentences in order to link meaning.  Without the phrase, a reader may not have enough understanding to figure out the word.  ‘Please’ by itself may not be strong enough in its meaning while standing alone. Or, possibly, is too complex of a word for the student to be able to break its code. But, when adding the other two words in the phrase to build ‘please pass the’, a whole world opens up because we automatically start building schema to try to finish the phrase. I’m sure some of you have automatically thought of salt, peas, butter, or something of that nature. It is the same with readers. They will automatically try to finish the phrase. That is when we take them back to the book to find the word please and use the phrase that it ‘lives in’ to teach the word.  It is all about using the phrase to spark the need to read. 
Feel free to download my packet of free sight word phrases and games from Laura's website. I use these in my own classroom when I model how to use sight word phrases in guided reading and then I gradually move them into a center for independent practice before beginning a new set.  Enjoy!

Jennifer Harness Ayers is a 17 year veteran teacher of the Hamilton County Schools System in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she has fulfilled the roles of reading interventionist, lead teacher, presenter, and has taught grades 1-5. She currently teaches second grade.  She recently earned her Ed.S. from Tennessee Technological University in Administration and Supervision, but her most important accomplishments in life were becoming a wife and a mom to her two children.  Jennifer is the author of the blog Best Practices 4 Teaching. (

1 comment:

  1. Great post, cuz. Guess Harness minds occasionally think alike. I'm gong to share this with parents of struggling.patients. something I've suggested that works for some kids, especialy in ADHD or learning disabilities, is to make the words interactive. For verbs don't.say the word--do it. For nouns,find or draw the object. I need to get a list but for example J-U-M-P is letters bit all kids know how to Jump. And the activity increases their attention and intereat--and makes it part of their permanent memory.