The process of reading is related to word recognition; this entails the learning and memorization of patterns of letters and the sounds associated with them. The common methods of learning to read include visualization coupled with auditory reinforcement. A child sees a picture of a dog with the word dog printed beneath it. Someone (a parent, a teacher) says the word ‘dog’ out loud while pointing to the word. The child learns to recognize the letters and the sounds associated with them. This leads to the practice of sounding out letters when encountering unfamiliar words that are not accompanied by pictures. The child learns to read.
While this works well with nouns and to some extent with verbs, it is difficult to use this visual/auditory method with such words as ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘for’, and ‘have’. These words, and others like them, are difficult to sound out, so they are learned through memorization. The child recognize them by sight.
There is a list of these types of words. It is the 220 Dolch Basic Sight Words list. Published by Edward Dolch, PhD. in his book, “Problems in Reading” in 1948, the list is still used today as part of classroom methodology for teaching reading.
These words don’t have corresponding imagery. What they do have is frequency. These words are the scaffolding of language. The previous sentence has seven words, four of which are on the Dolch list: These, Are, The, Of. As teh child learns to read, he or she sees these words in context with nouns and verbs. He learns to recognize them by sight; hence the term, sight words.
The concept of sight words goes beyond Dolch’s list. As he learns to read he develops decoding skills, to assist him when he encounters an unfamiliar word. The child sounds the word out, associating each letter with its sound and thus forms the word. After he encounters the word several times, he recognizes it easily and no longer reads it as separate sounds, but rather as a whole word. This is the way he builds a reading vocabulary.
But what of the child with dyslexia, or other language processing disorder? The child is disadvantaged from the start; letters and the sounds associated with them are processed differently. How does this child learn to recognize sight words?
Just as with mainstream children, children with learning disabilities learn by repetition. That it may take a little longer, or even quite a bit longer, does not mean the learning disabled will not build a reading vocabulary. Repetition is one of the primary methods used, though the reinforcement may take verbal form or kinetic form over written form.
Sight words are an essential component to reading. Humans learn these words early in childhood through their incorporation into lessons and stories. Dolch’s Basic Sight Word List has endured since 1948, evidence that these words, though abstract in nature, become integrated into the reading vocabulary at an early age.