In Defense of Sight Word ReadingDefending sight words

You’ve been following along with our Success Steps to reading, and right now you’re Fast Flashing some really cool words that go with the awesome personal book you made for your child. You’re doing the 5 minutes 2x a day plan, and you’re teaching sandwich style.

So here we are at Success Step 5:

Understanding How To Defend Yourself

At some point, you may find yourself on the witness stand with school systems. In that case, I want you to be able to defend yourself when it comes to putting sight words before phonics.

I want you to understand WHY we put it first with children with Down syndrome, when school codes typically demand phonics as a prelude to reading. With our kids, phonics comes along with the mix, but we don’t begin there.

A Closer Lookmagnifying glass

Let’s give this topic the closer look it deserves. We all think that if we first teach our children with Down syndrome the ABCs, that’s the best way to get them to learn reading early.


Well, why not? Because those shapes, those squiggly lines, are abstract. They in no way relate to Elmo, for example. On top of that, those shapes have weird, hard-to-pronounce names like “duh-bhul-yew.” (You want me to say what?)

Sight words, on the other hand, are packed with meaning. Let me stop and define what I mean by “sight words” when I’m talking about teaching an emergent reader: I mean primarily high interest content words that are taught by sight. So in this context of “packed with meaning,” I do not mean the (boring but necessary) high-frequency (“Dolch”) word lists of “in, the, by, etc.” though many of those are also “sight words,” as in, taught by sight.

“Sight words” can refer to both high interest and high frequency words. Typically, “sight words” refers to words that cannot be naturally decoded. English is, after all, a bizarrely organized language. Face it. It’s not predictable like the more benign languages of Italian and Spanish. Because of that, many English words simply have to be learned by sight. That’s how YOU learned them.

Sight Word Confusionsight_words

If 9 teachers are in the school staff room talking about what constitutes sight words, there could be a donut fight. So let me explain further…in my view, a sight word is any word that is taught to a child by flash cards (and let’s hope they’re using the Fast Flash method), either because it’s a word that can’t be decoded, or because the child is an emergent reader and hasn’t acquired decoding skills yet.  When we’re teaching an emergent reader, we want those words to be primarily high interest, or HOT TOPIC words.

Hot, Hot, Hot!

Reading should rock their socks, fire their jets, flip their pancakes...

Reading should rock their socks, fire their jets, flip their pancakes…

What are high interest HOT TOPIC words? Any words that describe what your child just loves. Adores. Thinks about all the time, can’t get enough of.  That’s where we start.

My son Jonathan (29, DS) at age 5 could read the words “electronics, locomotive, spaghetti” before he knew the alphabet. Why? Because those were things he loved. I wrote short personal books about those things, and he wore them out with an overdose of love.

11th Commandment Review

Remember my blog on the 11th Commandment? Take a refresher look at that if you need to. This Commandment fully supports this whole “hot topic with hot sight words” approach. Amen.

imagesFirst We Hook

The very first thing we want to do when teaching reading to our kids is to help them Absolutely Fall In Love With Reading. Once they’re hooked, our task is eeeever so much easier! The door is open, and we can walk right in with our Down-syndrome-friendly teaching techniques.

And Furthermore…

There are also important physiological/developmental reasons for teaching our children sight words first before phonics. I’ve written about that in a previous blog, “Facts Behind Putting Sight Words First,” which talks about Down syndrome-related auditory/auditory memory weaknesses and phonological awareness, with a link to the Down Syndrome Research Foundation of Canada. These issues are another reason we want to hand our kids sight word success first. Success breeds confidence; and once that Confidence Canoe pushes away from the “I can’t do it!” shore, we’re on our way!

Paddling like crazy,


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