How phonemic awareness helps words become sight words

We want kids to build their sight word vocabularies so they can read more easily. This blog post argues that sight words are critical.

But the story of sight words is not mostly about our eyes. Instead, the science of reading tells us that our word brains love sounds. For those of us who can hear, processing sounds is something we are wired for. So this post also argues that sound is critical when we’re teaching kids sight words.

Because our brains love sounds, this post will be the first on Teach. Learn. Grow. to offer its own ’80s mix tape. Dig out that tape deck, folks. If that’s long gone, I have good news: you can click the links to YouTube for these classic tunes instead.

What’s up with sight words?    

(Song 1: “Word Up” by Cameo, 1986)

When I say “sight word,” what comes to mind? For lots of us, I’m guessing a list begins to take shape, one that includes words like “said,” “was,” and “have.” One reason is that these words are rule-breakers, considering the phonics we teach kids early. They have funny spellings; “said” seems like it should rhyme with “paid,” for example. A second reason many call these sight words is that they appear with such high frequency.

Visual memorizing is incredibly inefficient compared to tapping into our brains’ strength with sounds.

But a reader’s sight word vocabulary goes beyond this understanding. It includes any and all words that the reader recognizes automatically and instantly. I have both “cat” and “catastrophe” in my sight word vocabulary. It doesn’t matter how frequent or how unruly these words are; it only matters that I no longer have to sound these out when I come across them in reading. I just recognize them.

I have a huge number of words that I now recognize immediately. The fact is, I have a truly massive sight word vocabulary. And if you’re starting to think “Um, brag much?” then you should know that you have a massive sight word vocabulary as well. Here’s how I know that: you were tracking on meaning as you read this. That tells me that you weren’t needing to sound out many of the words in this post, effortfully. Instead, you were reading with a high level of automaticity. Automatic word recognition enables you to tune in to comprehension of meaning as you read.

What we want for all kids is reading for meaning. And that can’t happen without lots of automatic word recognition. Word up, indeed.

What’s phonemic awareness got to do with it?            

(Song 2: “What’s Love Got to Do with It” by Tina Turner, 1984)

How do we build automatic word recognition? In the past, some teaching materials emphasized the shapes of words. This approach involved noting that the word “have” starts with a tall line, for instance, and the word “they” has tall letters up front and then ends with one that goes below the line. The theory was that growing sight word vocabulary was all about visual memory, and noticing shapes supported that. That is a wrong understanding. Please don’t teach this way.

Current research offers another path. Our current understanding of how our word brains work tells us instead that our word brains love sounds. When we can connect a word’s sounds back to its letters, we help ourselves remember or recognize that word more easily next time.

Here’s how that connection works, explicitly:

  1. Say the word out loud.
  2. Segment each of the sounds, or phonemes, in the word.
  3. Map each phoneme back to the letter or letters that represent it in the word.

When kids can hear the individual sounds in a word, then they can map the letter or letters they see back to each sound. That is called orthographic mapping. Here’s what it looks like:

We can support orthographic mapping even for unruly words, like “said.” We just have to be honest: English is weird. In this case, the /eh/ sound is written with AI. (Can you think of a word where AI says /eh/ again?)

But here’s the kicker: Not every student can easily hear the individual sounds in words. When students struggle with phonemic awareness, orthographic mapping is seriously challenged. You simply can’t map between letters and phonemes if you can’t easily distinguish the phonemes in the first place.

What matters and what works?           

(Song 3: “She Blinded Me with Science” by Thomas Dolby, 1982)

We’re realizing more clearly these days that we don’t have time to do things that only kinda work. We need our most effective interventions for helping kids get to automatic word recognition. So what does our research literature tell us? Increasingly, it tells us to double down on phonemic awareness. A 2016 meta-analysis focused on what kinds of interventions really stick, paying off most in the long term. Phonemic awareness training emerged as offering some really big bang for your buck, years down the road.

When we can connect a word’s sounds back to its letters, we help ourselves remember or recognize that word more easily next time.

The power of strong phonemic awareness makes more sense these days because we know more about orthographic mapping. When a student is great at phonemic awareness, they subconsciously and automatically do this orthographic mapping with words they come across. Without really thinking about it, they tap right into that love of sounds that our word brains have.

For students who are mapping sounds to letters as they encounter words, accumulating a sight word vocabulary becomes really efficient. These students build their sight word vocabularies just by reading. Only a few exposures to a word can result in remembering that word forever, for these subconscious mappers.

But some students stay in a space where phonemic awareness is a struggle. Encounters with new words don’t lead to subconscious or automatic orthographic mapping. The words remain visual only, and those sounds that their word brains love are not tapped.

Visual memorizing is incredibly inefficient compared to tapping into our brains’ strength with sounds. Because of this, students not yet able to map phonemes to letters struggle with building their sight word vocabularies. These students sound out the same words over and over again, effortfully, without mapping those words into memory. While their peers map words into memory after only a few exposures, students stuck without orthographic mapping need many, many more exposures to a word before it is remembered. This is discouraging. This kind of difficulty works against a love of reading. Readers stuck here stay focused on word decoding and cannot turn attention to making meaning.

We can teach students to sound out words with good phonics instruction. Next, though, they need to be able to move beyond sounding out to word recognition. And what stops too many kids from mapping words into memory is insufficient phonemic awareness.

Phoneme manipulation

(Song 4: “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” by Dead or Alive, 1984)

So what does it look like to help kids build really strong phonemic awareness? It doesn’t stop with segmenting and blending phonemes, which are useful for sounding out a word. Instead, we want to move into phoneme reversals, manipulation, and other phoneme-level analysis: some next-level stuff. Don’t hesitate to use letters here, too; pairing sounds and letters is the name of the game. We want to build a level of proficiency that kids can draw from subconsciously and automatically, in mapping words into memory. This is strength and muscle-memory training in phonemic awareness.

Here are two examples of phoneme manipulation. Bonus points: See if students can put letters to these!

  • Listen to the word “clasp.” Now take out the /s/ sound. What word is left? (“Clap”)
  • Listen to the word “flame.” Now take out the /l/ sound and replace it with an /r/ sound. What word do you get? (“Frame”)

For more help building this next-level phoneme proficiency, check out David Kilpatrick’s book Equipped for Reading Success: A Comprehensive, Step-by-Step Program for Developing Phonemic Awareness and Fluent Word Recognition.

Music to my ears

OK, mix tape listeners. I do know that listening to music while reading is not great advice. But I’m hoping the pairing of sights and sounds will help you remember: to help kids build sight word vocabularies efficiently, we need to build up their phonemic awareness.

So let’s get to it, as our last song from the ’80s suggests: “Bust a Move” by Young MC from 1989. Because back in 2021, our kids need us more than ever.

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