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Sight Words vs. Decodable Words

Helping Emergent Readers Understand the Difference


kid's finger pointing to a decodable word in a sentence scramble

How can I help my students learn the difference between decodable words and trick words?

***Updated 2021 to adhere to current research related to the Science of Reading***

After learning the letter names and sounds in isolation, beginning readers are often taught to decode closed syllable words (i.e. words that follow the CVC syllable pattern) such as: cat, dog, and lip. Initially, these readers often over-apply the closed pattern to every word they encounter.  Emergent readers may read like as lick or chop as /k/…/hop/.  At this initial stage of reading, it is important to teach a limited number of words as ‘trick’ words even if the word is phonetically regular.  A trick word, also known as a heart word, is a word that has a phonetically irregular component (i.e. of, the, said).  A trick word may also follow a phonetic pattern that has not yet been taught (i.e. see, bird). Later, as students learn additional syllable patterns and phonetic components, students can be taught to decode these types of words.

Keep in mind however, requiring emergent readers to memorize a large number of high frequency words is inefficient and taxes short term memory.

Providing a visible cue helps readers recognize which words they can decode and which words are trick words.  Sentence Scrambles provide an engaging scaffold to help emergent readers recognize the difference between trick words and decodable words.

What is a “Sentence Scramble”?  

A sentence scramble is a fun, interactive activity that can be used in strategy groups, guided reading groups, or in the intervention setting.   The sentence scramble activity supports emergent readers in one-to-one word matching, left to right reading progression, simple sentence structure, and reading trick words as well as phonetically regular words.

The following video demonstration shows an emergent reader engaging in a sentence scramble activity.

What is the difference between decodable words, sight words, high frequency words and trick words?

Decodable Words:  Words that are phonetically regular (following one of the six syllable types) and can be blended or ‘sounded out’.

Sight Words:  The Science of Reading does not advocate rote memorization of whole words  However, once a word has been orthographically mapped, it can be recognized at a glance or recognized ‘on sight’.

High Frequency Words: Words that appear often in text.  High frequency words may be phonetically regular and decodable (i.e. and, like, get) or they may contain phonetically irregular elements (i.e. some, of, was).  Once these high frequency words can be read ‘on sight’, they are then considered sight words.

Trick or Heart Words: Words that have phonetically irregular components.  Many high frequency words are trick words.

Is there a scaffold I can put in place to help beginning readers recognize the difference between decodable words and trick words?

Marking words in a text to signify a trick word is a helpful tool.  Scanning the page for words students recognize by sight and highlighting them with a marker or highlighting tape can help cue the readers to the different types of words.  Marking the words will help students know which words they can decode.

How can I assist readers who are not able identify any sight words?

Emergent readers need frequent scaffolded opportunities to practice blending decodable words.  They also need repeated exposure to a limited number of high frequency words.  Sentence scrambles offer emergent readers simple texts containing trick words and phonetically regular words.  Limiting the amount of text to one sentence can be very helpful for some early readers.

How can I implement this strategy?

Each of our engaging decodable reader packs include two ‘Sentence Scrambles’ per book.  We also have a ‘Short Vowel’ bundle available in our store.  Sentence Scrambles are an interactive component that develop print concepts and assist readers in distinguishing between trick words and decodable words.


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