Knowing letter sounds plays an important part in learning to read and write. However there are many words in the English language that have spelling patterns that cannot be figured out by applying letter sound knowledge. For example, you cannot decode (sound out) words such as for and said. How do beginning readers learn these words? I am so glad you asked, they memorize them so that they are recognized by sight. Hence the term "sight words".
How do you know if your child is ready to learn sight words? Each child develops his/her reading skills at a different pace, but usually once a child has learned to recognize upper and lowercase letters and can tell most of the sounds that go with letters he/she is typically ready to learn sight words. However, if you start showing your child sight words and he/she is saying letters in the word or are having trouble remembering the words, he/she may not be ready to learn words yet. Most kiddos who are learning sight words are also beginning to realize/work on developing concept of word.
I knew my four-year old son was ready to begin learning sight words because the conversations we were having about words changed. Instead of asking me what letter things started with (ex: "Mommy, what does dog start with?") he started asking me how to spell words (ex: "Mommy how do you spell the word dog?" I knew that he had an awareness that objects are named by words. This could be because my husband and I spell a lot of things that we don't want to say out loud in front of the kids. You know, like if you are planning on watching a movie or having ice cream after the kids go to bed, the last thing you want to do is say the words "movie" or "ice cream." My kids do not do well with routines if they think they are going to be missing out on something. I guess our days of spelling will be coming to an end shortly.
My other, "oh, you're probably ready to learn how to read sight words" moment came one afternoon while my son was having quiet time in his room. He was looking at some books instead of napping and he calls me up to his room. He says, "I can't look at dese books Mommy, cause I don't know the words." I think maybe this was a ploy on his part so that I would let him come downstairs and watch a movie or something because normally he has no problem checking out the pictures in a book. But it dawned on me that he had a realization that there were words to read on each page and he didn't know what they said. So I said, "well, I can teach you some words so that you can learn to read on your own." He replied, "Dat sounds like a plan to me!"
So, that very afternoon, after quiet time, we started our sight word wall. Now, typically word walls are organized by letters of the alphabet, like the one in my classroom. (I'll try to remember to add a picture of that later). However, we simply don't have space for that in my house and I wanted to put the words in a place that will be visible every day so that we can practice. So, we have a very basic word wall going on the back of our pantry door in the kitchen.
I cut small squares of brown cardstock I had left over from another project and wrote them in my kindergarten teacher printing with a marker. I started with I and a because they are words that are single letters. Then I just add one or two other words each week that I know are found frequently in books or words that he has asked how to spell (for example, car). So far we have 7 words (I, a, go, see, at, car, the). I am planning on adding color words and other words that are important to his world (Mommy, Daddy, his sister's name, etc). If you need ideas for words to use, I recommend starting with the pre-primer Dolch word list created by Edward Dolch. The Dolch word list is comprised of 220 frequently used words and 95 nouns found in children's reading.
We read through the words once a day or every couple of days, usually when I'm making dinner. Sometimes we read straight through them in order or sometimes I point to them out of order. Occasionally he'll forget the newest word, but usually once he has them, he has them. He loves reading them for other people when they come over. It is especially impressive to his grandparents, who in turn think he's super smart. Also, I know he's really learning these words because I'll point them out in stories when I'm reading to him and he'll remember what they are. Checking that your kids can recognize the word in different forms and places is key to knowing if they truly have mastery of the word.
My advice, don't push hard, but take cues from your child. Look for more ideas for ways to practice sight words with your child in future posts!