My Secret to Teaching First Graders over 600 Sight Words
The first year I was thrown into a regular first grade classroom I felt as though I’d been flung into the lion's den. My background had been Title 1, and I was spoiled from being able to teach small groups of children. And this was not some cookie cutter, suburban private school. This was inner-city and underfunded. Obviously, it is easy to gauge where each child is in the learning process when you have 6-7 children at your kidney table. You can read them more easily, see immediately where each one is at the time they shut down. (In short, you can teach to the child so much easier when you have a handful versus a room full!) Add to this the fact that many of the students were not receiving the proper support at home, which goes a long way in the learning process.
So, there I sat in my office, shuffling miserably through the stacks of paperwork that detailed the knowledge the district expected me to instill in my children. The required list of first grade sight words was prominent in the stack, along with instructions regarding the order in which to teach the words, and how and when to display them on the word wall. All of this petrified me, but I had to start somewhere. Here is what I learned from that first year.
Do an initial assessment
My first task when I began this process was to do an assessment of each child to find out where exactly they were in learning sight words. Truthfully, this didn’t take very long. In fact, this was the quickest part of the whole year. I sat down with child after child with my long list of words they hopefully learned in kindergarten and found to my chagrin that many of the children knew 1-5 words. That is all! One child, Lewis, only knew the word “I”. That particular assessment took exactly five seconds.
Clarify the goal
The requirement for the whole year was 100 words. 25 per quarter. So I made a check-off sheet so the children could each have a copy of the stuff they had to learn for the year. The point was that they were going to keep track of the words they learned by checking them off their sheet.
The children also took a copy home to give to their parents so they could review with their child. It only took 24 hours for me to learn to have multiple copies of this sheet available for replacing ones that were torn, lost, eaten, or otherwise disfigured and rendered unusable. Next I learned to make folders for the children with their morning work necessities clipped in place inside them so that cut down somewhat on the loss.
Establish a morning routine
At some point I figured out that routine would be my friend. So I had the children, as part of their morning work, choose three words from their list (I was at this point deviating away from the lock step instructions I had been given. I am not entirely sure if this was a mistake or intentional.) and they could ask me or a neighbor if they were not sure of the word, but then I asked them to write the word and draw a picture that went with it. When we were deeper into the year and they had more ability to actually make little sentences, they made little sentences with those words. That copy of the checklist was theirs to mark off the words as they worked on them. It was surprising how the children took ownership of the process in this way.
Practice teacher-led instruction
Each morning, right after the children completed their few minutes of “morning work” (to give everyone a chance to fully wake up, figure out where they were, and allow time for everyone to arrive for the day) we’d gather on the rug where we learned anything new we had to learn in reading. I had an easel and on the easel I draped a pocket chart. In the pocket chart were the first grade group of sight word flash cards we were dealing with. The children loved the color and images so it was very easy to keep their attention on the lesson. We briefly talked about each word, making sure no one was confused about what the words said, and then we played a game or two to practice with instant word recognition.
After about three days of playing games with the picture sides of the words showing, I would tell the children we were going to play “The Weakest Link!” (That was back in the day when that show was still airing so the children knew what it was about). We would have the children mentally choose a word they were SURE they would recognize even without the picture showing. Then we’d vote. The word that got the most votes would be turned over to the back side where the word in plain text appeared. Then I would ask if there was another word we could also turn over. I always followed the children’s lead on this. They knew if they needed to see the picture for a bit longer! We continued this way until all the words were turned over the course of a few days.
Populate the word wall
Once all the sight word flash cards are turned over and the children can still read them all, the words are friends, so they could be moved to the wall of the classroom. And we would refill the chart with the next set of cards.
Utilize independent centers
Because I was teaching reading in small group format, I had to come up with a way that the kids who were not in my group could help each other learn/review their words independently of me. So I compiled something like a buddy system in which I secretly paired children (one child was ahead of the other in terms of words they could read). I asked them to choose a set of SnapWords which I had prepared ahead of time by putting on a book ring. The children were to talk their way through the words on the ring, then take turns quizzing each other. They had permission to talk quietly at that center and had permission to ask another child if both in the pair were stuck.
How it went
The reason I am even writing this blog post is because of the outcome of the process I stumbled into. Obviously if it went badly I wouldn’t be advertising it to God and the world! What happened was that within a few weeks at least half of the children in my room had learned all 100 words! That pretty much screwed up my big plan for the year; you know, 25 words per quarter and all that. The other thing that happened is that the kids began asking for another list of 100 words. I was deeply gratified and excited and a bit in awe of what was happening. So once again I created a list of words and repeated the process. I sent a copy home, put a copy in their morning work folder, and then added yet another to a clipboard I had starting taking out to recess with me. The kids were prone to ask me to assess them during recess to see if they could read all their words yet.
Some additional steps
I realized quickly that the kids’ burning desire to have the teacher test them on their words so they could get their name on the classroom whiteboard was turning into a logistical nightmare for me. So I made some new procedures.
- I made room on our classroom whiteboard for names to go up. There was a column headed by “100 Words” and one by “200 Words.”
- Before asking me to test them, each child had to find someone who had already passed the list to listen to them read the list first.
- If their listener said they knew the words, I would take time to listen to them. If they passed, they were allowed to write their name under the appropriate column on the board showing everyone that they had passed.
Believe it or not….
Something about this process worked so well with these first graders that before very long, most of the class was on their SIXTH list of 100 words! By the end of the year, in the last week or so of the school year, I found myself making an EIGHTH list of 100 words for three of my kids. They begged me to please hurry and make the list because school was almost over and they would run out of time!!! Sure enough, by the last day of school, there were three names on the board under the 8th list of 100 words. One of those names was Lewis, the boy who at the beginning of the year could only read the word “I”. The lowest achiever was a girl named Hania, who passed her second list of 100 words on the last day of the school year amid the loud cheers of her classmates. It had taken her the year to learn two lists, but she was also learning English during that time. The second from the bottom was Pablo, who had passed his 6th list of 100 words. All the others had passed 7 or 8 lists of words.
What I learned from this process
- Kids can learn WAY more than we expect them to
- Pictures help a ton to jump start them (obviously I ran out of sight word pictures by about list 3 so after that, they had plain words on plain paper)
- It works to give the kids a lot of words and have them take ownership of learning them (which ones in which order, etc.)
- It works when you let children partner up to help each other
- Getting their name on the board in recognition is a powerful motivator
- Removing artificial ceilings for the children works wonders in how much they achieve
- Encouraging a non-competitive environment, where everyone cheers on everyone helps a lot
I did survive that first year of having a classroom of inexperienced first graders! And I have looked back on the challenges I faced, mainly that I was scared out of my mind and had no clue what I was doing, and have used those experiences with those first graders to learn more about what helps children learn. I feel sure many of you will have ideas to contribute about why exactly this process helped the kids far outshine expectations. Please feel free to comment!
P.S. The first seven lists of sight words I still could find on my computer are here. The last list, List EIGHT contained all sorts of words like chemistry, astronomy, philosophy and other really useful first grade sight words! Ha!