One critical component within any Orton-Gillingham lesson is sight word practice. Technically, a “sight word” is any word a person can read without “sounding out” because it can be recognized by sight.
The “sight word” practice embedded into early reading lessons targets our high-frequency words, the words we encounter often during reading and writing tasks, even as beginning readers. These words include articles (the), helping verbs (is, was), prepositions (of), and pronouns (they, she, he). When we know words are going to appear early and often, we want our students to read and spell them with automaticity!
Some high-frequency sight words can be sounded out (decoded), but many have irregular spellings that students must memorize and master. That being said, we never want students to completely “guess” at a word in front of them.
When it comes to sight word practice, one way to reduce guessing and encourage students to use decoding strategies as appropriate is by categorizing high-frequency sight words as red and green.
“Green words” can be decoded according to learned letter-sound correspondences and phonics rules. Green words are phonetically-regular.
“Red words” are phonetically-irregular. They contain letters that break one or more phonics rules. Using a stop light analogy, students must “stop” at a red word and think about it.
Red sight words should be introduced one or two at a time during structured phonics intervention. Every Orton-Gillingham lesson should include a sight word or “red word” portion. When introducing a new “red word,” teachers should point out the portion of the word that’s the “rule-breaker,” as almost all sight words contain a regular component.
For example, the word “said” can be segmented into its component sounds of /s/ /e/ /d/. Students can identify that the /s/ is represented by an “s” and the /d/ is represented by a “d” but why is there an “ai” in the middle when I hear /e/?!? Explain that this rule-break makes it a red word. We must remember that “said” has an “ai” in the middle, even though we hear the /e/ sound.
When selecting sight words for practice, many teachers and reading interventionists refer to the Fry and Dolch word lists. These lists were compiled decades ago as a means of identifying the most frequently-occuring words in the English language. These lists contain a mix of regular and irregular words. You can download these lists with the red words marked for you in my Free Resource Library.
To introduce a new high-frequency sight word with your student or class, simply write it on an index card in either green or red marker. Name the word, spell out the letters, and name it again. Have your students repeat it in this manner (say it, spell it, say it). Cue students into the red or green color. For example, “Look. This is a green word. All the letters make their sounds and we can blend them together.” Or, “Look. This word is red. We have to stop and think about it. Let’s figure out why this word is red.”
As a matter of preference, you may choose to mix red and green letters within words to really distinguish the regular from the irregular word parts. For the word “said,” that would mean writing “s” and “d” in green, but “ai” in red.
One final thing to note about labeling words as red and green is that some words can be considered red temporarily. This means that the word does not conform to the letter-sound correspondences or phonics rules that the student has learned up until this point.
Temporarily red words include he, be, me, she. Most kindergarten students have not learned about open syllable long vowels. Kindergarten students know that “e” makes /e/ like in “Ed.” Once students learn the open syllable long e sound, these words are no longer irregular.
Similarly, the words has, is, his, and as can be considered “red” or irregular until students learn that “s” makes the /z/ sound after a vowel or voiced consonant.
You can find 400+ high-frequency sight words color-coded for you within my Free Resource Library. Click HERE to subscribe.
With repeated exposures, reduce the cueing provided to the students and work toward automaticity in naming (reading) the words as you run through sight word decks. Keep sight word practice decks small, especially if they include new words. Words can be removed from decks after mastery. Additionally, after sight words have been introduced and can be recognized by a majority of the class, you can add them to your classroom word wall.