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Our 5 year old received a gift of a game that helps learning sight words.

Our (the parent's) first language is not English, and I have never heard this term before.

Wikipedia states that:

Sight words, often also called high frequency sight words, are commonly used words that young children are encouraged to memorize as a whole by sight, so that they can automatically recognize these words in print without having to use any strategies to decode.

The Wikipedia article lists a couple of reasons to teach children sight words, but it doesn't say if there is any differing opinions, other methods of beginning reading, or any drawbacks.

Are there any drawbacks? Is this the de-facto way of teaching reading?

As additional information, we live in the US, and he is attending a Montessori pre-school/elementary and we plan to have him move to public school after kindergarten (he is kindergarten age for next school year).

I am actually not sure if ournative language is taught like that or not, but I had never heard a special term for those words before.

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High-frequency words, also called "sight words (Dolch sight words)", "snap words", or other catchy names, are among the words that your child will first learn to recognize while reading because they are common in the language. Your child will likely have learned 20 to 40 of these words by the time they complete kindergarten.

High-frequency words are often taught explicitly because they are encountered often in the simplest of texts and evade other methods of textual analysis like phonetic breaking (sounding out) and word chunking (splitting words into recognized syllables). So yes, this is a common practice for teaching reading. Even if they are not explicitly taught, children often pick them up if they read daily.

Playing games to learn them won't hurt, although it's best and easiest to teach them when the words are used in context and have accompanying illustrations. Flash cards are not encouraged because they take the words out of context and usually don't offer visual cues. The worst case scenario is that it is not an effective means of teaching and your child may get bored of it quickly.

I have some other answers on this site about how children learn to read. This one about the general process for learning to read would probably be helpful for you. To summarize it:

  1. Children learn to read by recognizing that text on a page conveys meaning. The symbols are letters, and a group of letters surrounded by spaces is a word.

  2. Children learn to analyze text using a variety of tools. Early readers use pictures, their knowledge of initial letter sounds, and context to figure out what word is printed on the page.

You can help a child learn to read by reading with them, pointing at each word as you read it, and helping them to use these strategies to figure words out. Sight words happen often enough that your child will probably memorize them on their own without noticing.

  • Good point about "evading other methods of textual analysis like phonetics." Indeed, quite a few sight words don't follow phonetic rules very well (e.g., the, of, to, said, one, many, would, been, only, have, what, and where, to name a few). Strange how some of English's most common words can flaunt exceptions to the "rules" so blatantly. – J.R. Feb 26 '16 at 19:41

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