Should key words be taught as ‘sight’ words?

I’ve just been asked a question that comes up with unfailing regularity: what should the advice to parents be ‘if a school insists on students learning “key words” by sight and asks you as a parent to help’.

The sad truth is that if a school is sending words home that are to be learnt ‘by sight’, it is clear that they don’t have confidence in their own understanding of how the sounds of the language relate to the spelling/writing system and how to teach that system. Words identified by schools as ‘key words’ almost invariably come from the list of high frequency words listed as an appendix in Letters and Sounds. All of these words can easily be taught as part of a good quality phonics programme. This is because all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds in words have been assigned spellings, even if some of those spellings are less frequent than others. That being the case, it’s a tall order to expect any parent to know what to do with lists of ‘key words’ sent home for a pupil to learn to read and/or spell unless they are (a) literate, and (b) know how the alphabet code works.

In addition, the question isn’t easy to respond to because the answer will also be predicated on the quality of the phonics programme the pupil is being taught (or not being taught!) at school and on the order in which sounds and spellings are introduced.  This means that what the pupil will need help with will always depend on the pupil’s prior knowledge. For example, has the pupil covered all one-to-one (one-letter spellings to one sound) correspondences? Has s/he been introduced to the idea that many sounds can be spelled with two letters in the context of double consonants? Has s/he improved their skills of blending and segmenting sufficiently to be able to spell four and five-sound words containing adjacent consonants? And, has s/he begun to learn the different ways to spell the remaining sounds in English and to understand explicitly how the code works?

So, to answer the question in practicable terms, I would always say to any parent, unless you really think the school is going to listen to you and to change its practice when you tell them that they shouldn’t be teaching  ‘key words’ as ‘sight words’, you probably won’t get very far by fighting them. This means that if you’re not satisfied the school is doing the job properly and you don’t want to change schools – after all, the child may love their class teacher and everything else about the school may be just what you want – I would say take responsibility for teaching your child yourself! Then, when your child brings home a list of words taken from the first one hundred high frequency word list, do the following.

For reading:
Take however many squares of paper are required and write the spellings for the sounds in each of the words in the list sent home. For example, if the first word is ‘said’, write the spellings for the sounds in ‘said’ on three squares: thus, s ai d for the sounds /s/ /e/ /d/. Then word-build the word by following the instructions I have already outlined in this blog post. At the end of the process, when you have asked the pupil to read the word /s/ /e/ /d/ ‘said’, point to the ai spelling of /e/ and say, ‘In this word, we spell /e/ like this.’ Now, ask the pupil to write the word, saying each sound as they write the spelling: /s/ /e/ /d/ and then again read the word sound by sound at the end. You will probably need to repeat this process a number of times during the week.

You might also want to add that the spelling ai is a less frequent spelling of /e/. If the pupil is a bit older, you could also add that the spelling reflects the way the word was once pronounced. It would at one time have rhymed with ‘spade’ and, in fact, many people today in, say, the West Country today still say the word in this way.

Similarly, you teach ‘they’ in exactly the same way and point to the ey spelling and say, ‘This is one of the ways in which we spell the sound /ae/. [You find the same spelling of the sound in other words like ‘grey’ and ‘prey’.]

For spelling:
Take the word list. Here’s one my own daughter brought home many years ago: ‘she’, ‘mum’, ‘dad’, ‘that’ and ‘go’.

Sit next to the pupil with the list of words out of their line of sight and on a small white board or piece of paper, tell the pupil that the first word is ‘she’. Ask the pupil to say the sounds in ‘she’. As they say /sh/ /ee/, you write the spellings sh and e. Now you point to the spelling eand say, ‘In this word, we spell the sound /ee/ like this, pointing to the e. Now, you ask the pupil to read it back, /sh/ /e/, perhaps also reminding them that sometimes we spell a sound with two letters, pointing to the sh. Finally the pupil writes the word, saying the sounds as they do. After a couple of days of this, responsibility for writing the spellings of each word passes to the pupil. Now, repeat the procedure with the other words.

What you need to remember is that you use straightforward, simple language: there are sounds and there are spellings. If you’re not sure of a word yourself, ask yourself what the individual sounds you hear in a word are and match each sound to each spelling. When you are reading together and you come to a word that contains a sound-spelling correspondence that your pupil/child has never seen before, you run your pencil under the spelling and say that this is /x/. For example, in the word ‘through’, you might have to run your pencil under the ough and say, ‘This is one sound. It’s /oo/. Say /oo/ here.’ And the pupil should say /th/ /r/ /oo/ ‘through’ [always assuming that they’ve already encountered the th spelling for /th/ unvoiced.].

Having given all of that advice you need to be aware that simply by responding to what a school sends home is only going to enable you to teach part of what needs to be taught and, given that your teaching will always be reactive to what the school sends home, even using the above techniques, your teaching will not be systematic. What you really need to do to teach a pupil to read and spell to a high degree of proficiency is to teach a high quality, coherently and systematically structured phonics programme that teaches all the sound-spelling correspondences, the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation, and conceptual understanding of how the code works in practice. And for that you need high quality training!

You can read our handout on high frequency words in Letters and Sounds here.

NB: It should also be stated that the advice the DfE is now giving is explicitly against teaching any of the high frequency words listed in Letters and Sounds by ‘sight’.

7 thoughts on “Should key words be taught as ‘sight’ words?

  1. Can a teacher tell how the child is pronouncing the word? If the teacher can't tell, then just teach the child to pronounce it phonetically, as quickly as possible, and then get on with it.

    The thing that continually confuses me is this emphasis on teaching the child these technical details. The child knows how to pronounce the word. The child has spoken the word personally more than 100 times, in all probability. It should be quite sufficient just to point out that this word starts with an S sound and then the rest more or less rhymes with aid, maid, etc.

    As far as I can figure this thing out, the only time that phonics doesn't work is when phonics bogs down in too many details. Does that ring true?

    Bruce Price

  2. The question, Bruce, isn't whether a teacher can tell how a child is pronouncing a word, it's a question about teaching the child how to relate the sounds of the child's language to the way in which those sounds are spelt. As we've got a very complex spelling system, it matters how it is taught and this isn't a mere technical detail.
    Of course, the word 'said' is almost certainly within the child's oral vocabulary but that isn't what's at issue. What's at issue is how to teach all children how to read and spell/write in their own language – in this case English.

  3. John, this I great and I will send people this direction. It's the same that that happens with secondary pupils, only they are given lists of curriculum words instead of their parents.

    If anyone is working at that level, there are free lists of coded secondary curriculum words in the "downloads" section over at trt-for-teachers.com

  4. Thanks for writing in Tricia.
    What you say is perfectly true. There was one secondary school in which I used to hold Sounds-Write trainings and they had literally hundreds of words, arranged by subject, that the pupils had to learn! So daunting was it, the list was enough to put off anyone from even trying.
    Best to you.

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