This entry talks about a method I developed for using flash cards to teach sight words. If you want the background and justification for this method, please read Part 1.
While working with my struggling readers, I made a few observations. Nouns and verbs are easier for them to learn than other kinds of words. The more abstract the words, the harder it is for these students to learn them.
By abstract, I don’t mean Cubism or Dadaism, though those are pretty hard to get your head around. I mean pronouns, and adverbs, and the words we, as adults, would have trouble defining. Give it a stab. Try telling yourself what the word ABOUT means. How about OF?
Anyway, when my students have no problem recognizing the words PENGUIN and NINJA, but can’t tell if they are reading IT, AT, IF, or IS, then I think it’s clear that the nature of a word holds sway over the ease of its acquisition.
To this end, I designed my flash card program so that the meaning of the word and its role in a sentence are given just as much importance as the look of the word. Three things to learn instead of one, yes, but three things that put the word into context, and allow for connections to be made beyond the dolch word list.
To make the flashcards, here’s what you do.
On the front of the card, as with any flashcard, write the word nice and big. With me so far? 😉
Now, on the back, write examples of other words that have a similar phonic structure, or make a note about the exceptionality of the word.
For example, you might note that the word WHAT starts the same way as other questions words like WHY, and WHEN. You could also note that the H is silent, and other words like WHITE and WHALE have a silent H.
The next thing to do is write a definition of the word. A good definition will explain what the word means, and how it works in a sentence. It will convey the purpose of the word. This is the REALLY difficult part, because you don’t want a dictionary definition. You want something the student can relate to and understand. And don’t use the word itself in the definition!
BAD: “What is what we use to ask what something is.”
GOOD: “WHAT is a word we use to ask the name of something.”
Or, “We say WHAT when we want to know about something.”
And last, you have the student come up with a sentence that uses the word. Write this sentence on the card, highlighting the word. It is important that your student makes up these sentences. First, because it will immediately tell you if he has any concept of the word – of course he won’t be able to read the word if he doesn’t even have it in his lexicon. Second, the sentence will be something he can connect to, so he can access his schema later. Third, it will be at his vocabulary and grammar level. Fourth, there is a current way of thinking that says students should encode before we ask them to decode. This is encoding at the sentence level.
Keep in mind that these are intended for use with students who need remediation. You can certainly use the methodology in a whole class lesson, but the cards themselves are too involved to have a class set, especially since they include generating personalized sentences.
Now, let’s use the cards.
First, see if she can read the word when she sees the front of the card.
Then, flip it over, and discuss the spelling of the word. Point out the features, exceptions, and similar words. After several visits to the card, see if the student can recall the spelling pattern on her own, or if she can read the other words you’re associating.
Next, review the meaning of the word and how it’s used. Again, see if the student can eventually define it herself. It’s okay if she just gives an example of its use, rather than a definition. Remember how hard it was for you to define them when making the cards.
Last, have the student read her sentence from the card. Have her point to each word though, so she isn’t just parroting her words. You can make a new sentence later, if you need to use the cards often.
Run through several cards repeatedly, over days. As the student becomes more familiar and shows that she has memorized the appearance, features, and use, you can move on to new cards. Remember to revisit old cards to reenforce the learning over time.
Now, I can’t guarantee that this method will work for all students, and students with severe learning disabilities may not benefit from this at all. But I have had success, especially with children who do not learn grammar patterns through osmosis.
As always, you will have to try the method, give it a few weeks, and then test to see if it’s working. If you try this out, please let me know how it went. If you came up with any tweaks, or have a particularly good definition for one of the trickier abstract words, please share.
In the past, I was an Early Literacy Intervention teacher. I worked with the weakest readers, half an hour a day, in small group sessions. One of the things I had to do was improve their sight vocabulary. I used the standard Dolch lists (words selected for their frequency in child centered texts and their irregular spellings), doing what most primary teachers would do; I wrote the words on flash cards, and drilled, drilled, drilled.
We went through each deck of cards, a few at a time, reading and spelling the words over and over. We played games like snap and memory, and whatever else I could think of, to get these words into their heads and out of their mouths.
What a waste of six weeks.
No matter what I did, whenever those same words appeared in the books I assigned, my students almost never read them properly. They never read them fast. And sometimes they didn’t even recognize them as words they had studied.
So, after permanently altering my hairline, I had to reflect and find out why this ‘tried and true’ technique didn’t work for these kids (all the time wondering if it ever has).
Here is the conclusion I drew from these results. The students I was working with could not transfer the discrete skill of simple recall to the act of reading meaningful sentences. They were perfectly fine at recognizing and naming these words in the context of a meaningless list, but they couldn’t recognize, name, or even guess at those same words outside of the specific drill activity.
Now, in this role, I became somewhat of a self-proclaimed expert on conducting and analyzing running records (having the child read aloud from an unfamiliar text while I manually record everything that the child says and does, so as to determine strengths and weaknesses in the child’s reading behaviours). The most important component of a running record is determining which cuing system(s) the child uses, be it phonics (visual), grammar (syntactical), or context (meaningful), or any combination of the three. A strong reader will use all three systems, seamlessly switching from one to another, depending on the demands of the text.
And duh, sight word flash cards only focus on the visual cuing system, and poorly at that, as there is no focus on the phonic relationships at all. It’s just, “Here’s a word, say it.” No wonder these kids don’t recognize these sight words in contexts that demand grammatical and semantic knowledge!
How did I address this? In Part 2, I will describe a sight word flashcard method I developed, which incorporates all three cuing systems, in order to teach the whole word, not just how it looks on paper.