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Dyslexia Diagnosis

Teaching Sight Words–Use Sign Language!

Sight words are the bane of every early language learner. These sneaky little words often can’t be decoded by using conventional phonics rules or context clues, and they have little or no visual references. Lasty, they are–BORING! Simply put in writing we call these “business words”–they help string our thoughts together in some logical order, but, yet for students they don’t carry a lot of meaning.

Interesting trivia about Sight Words … did you know that …

  • 10 words account about for 25% of all words used?
  • 50 words account for 50% of all words in our speech?
  • 100 words cover 60% of all words in reading and writing?
  • 1000 words account for all  the words you will expect to find anywhere?
  • 10,000 words are almost all or 98% of all the words you will encounter during your lifetime?
  • The TEN most useful words in English are …
          • a
          • an
          • be
          • for
          • have
          • in
          • of
          • that
          • the
          • to

Now these ten words may be the most useful, but they don’t carry much contextual (meaning) weight in a passage, novel, poem, etc.  

Obviously, we as teachers tend to focus on the “important words” that carry contextual weight and meaning–in other words, vocabulary words. Not only do teachers focus on the instruction of vocabulary words more, but native English speakers also naturally stress them more in speech. The mere fact that we often skim over clearly enunciating sight words doesn’t give students a chance to hear sight words used clearly. However, this is normal human speech and behavor. Yet it sends the implicit message to young language that sight words aren’t as important as the contextually rich vocabulary words. So how do we make these little demons POP for students?

If you are incorporating a multisensory approach, you will know that incorporating the use of all senses including meaningful movement that uses gross and fine motor skills, creates total sensory and physical memories. As crazy as this sounds … memory cells are not located only in the brain! They are also located within muscles and nerves. That’s why we learn best when our entire bodies are active. Playing word charades; jumping in letter or word hopscotch; making letters with our bodies; and jumping rope and spelling are examples of using not only our eyes, hearing, and touch, but also our kinesthetic or physical modality.

So … bringing it back to the topic at hand—sight words. I have an ELL student who is being homeschooled, but has not learned to read. I am gradually teaching her all of the sight words she needs in order to string a sentence together, so that she can also learn contextually rich words. Of course, I’m doing this by introducing a short book to her almost every day that has 1-2 new sight words. Because so many words are like these: in, on, under, together, with, about, to, and for … seem meaningless, I have incorporated using sign language.

Imagine what IN looks like when she sees this:

Now the word IN has a visual reference–placing the fingers inside the other hand–it could represent anything. But now it’s real. While using a sign, you should use accompanying sentences like: In the house. In my pocket. Get in the car. In the box. In a book. Kick the ball in the goal.

Now when my young student has trouble using the correct sight word she refers to her signs to find the context she is looking for.

Using sign language to enhance instruction is a wonderful multisensory aide to teach those hard-to-learn sight words. It’s even great to use with vocabulary words as well. And lastly, it’s just a beautiful language!

Free Sign Language Dictionary:                                   

Sign Language Dictionary:



About Ann Gavazzi

Reading specialist and English teacher with a particular interest in treatment of dyslexia. Also interested in education and education policy at large and current reading research. Owner of the Reading Innovations Center, a tutoring center that specializes in one-to-one tutoring for struggling readers and math students.


2 thoughts on “Teaching Sight Words–Use Sign Language!

  1. Have you read Diane McGuinness’ Why Our Children Can’t Read or Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain? Both of these books, based on current brain research, demonstrate that teachng sight words can be detrimental to students learning to read. I love that you’re trying to incorporate multi-sensory approaches, but couldn’t disagree more about teaching sight words.

    Posted by Jessica | May 1, 2012, 8:35 pm
  2. Hi Jessica,

    Sight words account for 50-60% of all the words in the English language. While I believe that we have not found the best way to teach sight words–they need to be taught. From my teaching experiences, I have had so many students repeatedly get stuck on sight words … why? Because there is no visual reference or concreteness to those words. I have not read the books you mentioned, but they sound interesting. I find it hard to believe that not teaching words, which provide the suppportive skeleton for sentences, is a best practice. Thanks for reading my blog and responding to a post!

    Posted by Ann Gavazzi | May 3, 2012, 12:37 am

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