This is a great article written by Hare Literacy in the UK published whole here. It explains why an explicit structured phonics program can help learn sight words and why the flashcard method is less effective.

Jenni’s reading journey

Let’s talk about a little girl called Jenni. She’s four-turning-five, and has just started Reception. She is a bit shy, but she quickly makes friends with Lulu, and together, they play, argue, tease, joke and tell stories. Jenni grows in confidence after a few days and starts asking her teacher questions, like “are we doing GoNoodle today” and coquettishly paying her compliments about her “pretty shoes” and “soft hair”. Jenni has a large oral vocabulary, like many of her peers. It’s approaching around 10000 words.

In the first week of Reception, her teacher starts teaching reading. Jenni can’t read yet, but she is very excited to learn just like her big sister. Her teacher starts by getting the whole class to say a word: “mat”. They discuss what a mat is, and Jenni remembers the mat she has at home that she must wipe her feet on at the front door. Then her teacher slows down and stretches the pronunciation of the word and asks her class what sound they hear at the beginning of the word. Lulu puts her hand up and cautiously says /m/. She is allowed to go to the board to find the letter that spells /m/. Lulu doesn’t know which letter it is yet, but her teacher guides her. Daniel and Jemma identify the middle and end sounds, repeating the same process. At the end, the whole class has a go at writing the whole word “mat” on their whiteboards. They say /m/ when they write , /a/ when they write and /t/ when they write .

Over the next few weeks, Jenni and her class write lots of words with a gradually increasing number of sounds and associated spellings. They revisit “mat” every now and again.

Jenni sees the word “mat” in the texts she practises reading at home. She has to sound it out the first 2 or 3 times, but after that, when she sees it, she immediately says “mat”.

Then, in her fifth week of school, Jenni writes a story on her own, having a go at writing all her ideas. When she comes to “mat”, she says the word slowly out loud. She hears /m/, /a/ and /t/, and writes “mat”. She is very proud, as she knows this spelling is correct. She has checked that the letters match the sequence of sounds in the spoken word.

By the time Jenni is halfway through Reception, she can read and spell the word “mat” without sounding it out, or saying it out loud slowly first. It has entered her long-term memory, and now can be considered a true sight word, meaning a word that she instantly recognises without applying any effort.

Orthographic Mapping

The process Jenni has participated in here is the process of orthographic mapping.

1. The word was in Jenni’s oral vocabulary.

2. Jenni could hear all three sounds in the word.

3. With support, she was able to assign the letters to the sounds. This gave the letters meaning and purpose, rather than being a random string (which would be very difficult to memorise).

4. After repeated exposures, the letters were unitised in Jenni’s long-term memory. Whenever she saw that exact sequence of letters, whether they were written in a silly font, all capitals, formed with pebbles, or some other novel presentation, the word “mat” in her oral vocabulary was activated. This doesn’t happen when she sees “amt”, “tma” or “tam”, nor does she accidentally spell the word in any of these ways. She has the conceptual understanding that the sequence of letters must match the sound sequence.

Linnea Ehri

Linnea Ehri is the researcher who researched deeply and ultimately coined the term orthographic mapping (2014). She describes the process of linking the sequence of sounds in a word to their spellings as “glue”.

Eventually, this glue enables letter strings to be stored in a reader’s long-term memory. When a reader sees a word that has gone through this mapping process, the word from their oral vocabulary is activated as quickly as it would have been if they had heard that word spoken aloud. Alarmingly fast.

Written words aren’t stored in our visual memory. The input comes via our eyes, but the storage of the words is our oral vocabulary.

Jenni’s journey continues

Jenni continues to love learning to read, and proudly reads her writing back to her teachers, family and peers. By the time she enters Year Two, she has had two whole years of practice in mapping letters to sounds in spoken words. This continues in Year Two with even more different spellings of sounds. Her mum lets Jenni borrow some books from the library, and she reads them independently. Jenni’s first instinct is not to do any of these things when encountering an unfamiliar word:

1. Guess.

2. Look at the pictures.

3. Look at the first letter and think what might make sense.

Instead, Jenni looks carefully at the letters in the word and uses her letter-sound knowledge to sound it through to the end. Her skill of blending helps her to identify the word in her spoken vocabulary. When she sees it again on the next page and then again next week in another book, she recognises it instantly.

Share’s self-teaching hypothesis

What Jenni is able to do now is explained by David Share’s self-teaching hypothesis: phonological recoding (1995). Jenni has knowledge of many letter-sound combinations, and through exposure to and decoding/writing of many words, she has unitised an increasing number of letter strings as well as words: ing, ed, tion, str, etc. (Note: she has never sat down to intentionally memorise these, but they’ve been orthographically mapped).

So, for Jenni, an unfamiliar word is just an opportunity to apply what she knows with the skills she has practised, to match the letter sequence to the word in her oral vocabulary. Once she has encountered that word 1-4 times, it enters her long-term memory and can be fluently read and spelt.

Rosie & Marie’s balanced literacy journey

Jenni has twin cousins, Rosie and Marie, who attend a different school. Their school believes in the balanced literacy approach: that a combination of a little phonics, rich literature, word memorisation through flashcards, word puzzles and hands-on activities enables children to learn to read.

Rosie has learnt to read. Rosie approaches new words in a similar way to Jenni. Rosie is lucky, as are many of her classmates. She wasn’t taught how to read explicitly, but she figured it out on her own, by independently figuring out the link between the letters in a word and the sounds of the corresponding spoken word. She might find it difficult to explain how she reads, but, nevertheless, she can do it with proficiency.

Her sister, Marie, has had the same instruction and upbringing as Rosie. But Marie has not learnt to read. She spends lots of intervention sessions tracing word shapes, practising flashcards, using picture cues, guessing what the word might be… strategies that take Marie’s attention off the word itself. By Year Two, she’s finding classroom work very difficult and is not making much progress.

Phonemic Awareness

This is because Marie’s phonemic awareness is weak. This means she finds it really hard to pull apart and work with the sounds in spoken words, something that came naturally to her sister. This is common in individuals with dyslexia or other reading disabilities. Remember, that skill is essential if Marie, like Jenni and Rosie, is going to map letters to the sounds in spoken words, enabling her to remember word spellings. Her school does not recognise the importance of phonemic awareness, and so is not working with her on these skills.

Marie believes she has to memorise all the words she is expected to read, and has successfully done this with quite a few words. But that doesn’t help when the word is unfamiliar, or longer, or is in an unexpected form. Marie wants to read and write but feels dumb, because her sister and her friends seem to do it easily. She doesn’t like school as much as she once did.

The real sight words?

The real sight words are those that have been orthographically mapped. Whether it was done consciously or subconsciously, the research seems to agree that that’s how all proficient readers were formed. An understanding of orthographic mapping, and its associated skills – phonemic awareness and letter-sound knowledge – enables teachers and parents to spend valuable time on what actually makes a difference in helping learners to read.

(This post was taken from :