Friday, February 26, 2010

Sight Words for Kindergarten? Yes, But Not Too Many

Here is a letter I received this week:
Dr. Shanahan,
I’m writing you out of sheer frustration in doing my own research on the topic of Kindergarten Sight words – perhaps it’s because the answer I’m looking for just isn’t there??

I’m on the hunt for some solid research and have not been successful in finding it (I’m usually pretty good in doing so!) My K teachers are in disagreement about the teaching of sight vocabulary – and it’s a driving force for some angst right now in their team. I just printed the executive summary of the report of the natl early literacy panel…yet as I skim through I see nothing regarding sight word acquisition.

At this point, we have some that believe it’s NOT developmentally appropriate to teach sight words…..others are very skills=based and driven to do so, especially with the 1st grade goal of mastery of 100 high frequency words by Oct 1 of first grade. There are currently 60 high frequency words being measured/hopefully mastered by the end of K in our data books for that level.

Could you provide some insight about this? Specific research for me to back it - - How many? Which ones?

Instructional Coach

Dear Coach:

Thanks for your letter. Research and experience tell me that sight word instruction is helpful to young children who are learning to read. However, the research is not terribly specific as to how many words should be taught or when so anything I say on that will have to come entirely from experience and the wisdom of others.

I have no qualms in saying that it IS developmentally appropriate to teach sight words to kindergarteners (or even preschoolers). If it weren't developmentally appropriate, then young children simply would not learn the words (but they do). I’ve watched hundreds of Kindergarten teachers teaching words and have reviewed lots of research on the teaching of print to young children, and see no evidence that this cannot be done profitably and well.

Based on its seminal research review (Prevention of Reading Difficulties) the National Research Council issued an implementation guide for schools, a marvelous little book, Starting Our Right: A Guide to Promoting Children’s Reading Success that I used when I was director of reading in Chicago. It suggests that by the end of kindergarten, children should recognize some words by sight including a few very common ones (the, I, my, you, is, are). Unfortunately, it isn't specific as to how many, but this authoritative guide makes it absolutely clear that sight word teaching is appropriate in kindergarten.

However, 60 words sounds high to me (as does the idea that everyone will know the most frequent 100 words by Oct 1 of grade 1). That sounds ambitious (which is good), but I suspect that there will be a lot of failure with it. I’ve always told my teachers that by the end of grade 1 the students should know all of the 100 most frequent words — and a 300-500 other easy-to-decode words as well. Typically, the first 100 high frequency aren’t mastered by most kids until Thanksgiving or so (and that is with considerable effort).

I would suggest a much more modest goal for the end of kindergarten (perhaps 20 words or so, with at least 10 of those being high frequency words). I think your teachers are frustrated not because they are teaching the wrong stuff, but because the standard is set too high to be practical.

They also may be struggling with this teaching if they aren’t well-versed in how to do that. Too often sight word teaching becomes a drill-sequence that is unnecessarily tedious. Try things like having the children dictate language experience stories, and do lots of reading and rereading (including choral reading) with these. Then start pulling words out of these stories and help the children to examine these outside of the context of the story. That kind of teaching goes much faster and will be less stressful for everybody.


Cathy Puett Miller said...

Dr. Shanahan - Thanks so much for posting this. I was just told today by a preschool teacher that she had been given the pre-primer list of 40 Dolch sight words and told that the preschool children in her Head Start should know all 40 before they come to school - absurd!
I also agree very much with your references to Dr. Snow, et al work which supports the idea of integrated experiences with reading, plesaure and enjoyment of stories and lots of experience understanding that print has meaning. Keep up the good work!

mary in Tennessee said...

I thank you as well for bringing sanity to this issue. Dr. Lester Laminack taught us to use poetry to build our students ability to read sight words. I found this very easy to do and use poems that are theme related. My Ks usually can read at least 25 sight words on average just by using this method

SearchingForAnswers said...

How appropriate and/or scientifically logical is it to retain students in grades K and 1 for non-mastery of large numbers of sight words? My main concern is the stress and pressure we are exerting in kindergarten for promotion based on sight words. At some schools, they shoot for 92 words by the end of kindergarten. Some students are pushed to master 92 sight words (although they only need to know 65 to pass) but end up experiencing tears and frustration in the process. Something about this bothers me deeply. Is an overemphasis on sight words "muddying" the waters when we should be focusing on phonemic awareness and phonemes?

Tim Shanahan said...

Searching for Answers

Indeed, basing promotion and retention on the number of sight words known by kindergartners would be a foolish practice. It is an approach not consistent with either good pedagogy (look at the research on retention) or on what it means to teach someone to read (a focus on phonological awareness and decoding should dominate at this point). Flunking 5-year-olds because they have not yet memorized 65 sight words in neither appropriate nor scientifically logical. It isn't good for the kids either.