Valuable Steps for Mapping Sight Words for Mastery

Anyone who has taught kindergarten for any length of time can tell you that teaching sight words to kindergarteners can be a challenge. However, it is an essential step in helping young learners develop reading skills. By mapping sight words, students can improve their reading fluency and comprehension. The importance of teaching sight words is not a question. However, the process of introducing and mapping sight words can be a challenge. And, it is difficult to find real-life, classroom examples of how it can be done. In this post, I will give you a glimpse of how I teach the mapping of sight words in my own classroom to help build a solid foundation for reading.

What Are Sight Words Anyway?

Regardless of whether they are decodable or spelled irregularly, sight words are words that we can retrieve instantly and effortlessly when we see them. While young readers may have only a handful of these in their memory, adult readers boast between 30,000 and 70,000 sight words in their memory banks giving them the tools to read with ease and fluency. However, building that bank of words is not an easy task. Depending on the person, it can take anywhere between 5-500 repetitions before a word becomes part of that memory bank. What that tells us is, memorization is not an efficient way to master sight words. There’s a better way!

Mapping Sight Words for Mastery

Recent findings in regard to the Science of Reading indicate that by using the mental process of Orthographic Mapping, readers can take unfamiliar words and turn them into sight words that they can instantly retrieve. By mapping out words, readers will receive explicit instructions that help them make connections and recognize patterns in words. As students learn to decode words and make connections, their brain understands the patterns and recognize the word. After between 1-4 times mapping, there is no need for students to sound it out every time. It becomes part of their memory. Mapping sight words is definitely the more efficient way to get these words into students’ long-term memory.

Mapping It Out

Now that you’re ready to map out words, here is how it might look if you were mapping out an irregularly spelled sight word like ‘said.’

  1. Say the word and tap out the number of sounds you hear. In the word ‘said,’ there are three sounds /s/ /e/ /d/. So, I would move a manipulative while saying the sounds to three different boxes.
  2. Identify the letters that make each of the sounds. In the word ‘said,’ the letter s makes the /s/ sound and the letter d makes the /d/ sound. However, while we may assume that the /e/ sound in the middle is made by the letter e, in this word it is made by the letters ‘ai.’ This is the part that we have to remember by heart, so I will put a heart above that part.
  3. We then blend the sounds together.
  4. Finally, we practice what we know about ‘good handwriting’ to write the word on the lines.
Students mapping out the word 'want.'

But How Does It Look In A Classroom?

Well, this IS the million-dollar question now isn’t it? I get it. It is so aggravating when experts say, ‘You need to be doing this . . .’ but they never show you how to make it work, how to organize it, and get it going in a real classroom. So, let me show you what has worked for me.

Before You Start

As anxious as you may be to get started mapping out words with your students, there are some necessary prerequisites that must be met before you do. Mapping sight words or any words can’t start on the first day of kindergarten. If we really want students to be great word mappers, they must first have:

  • automatic letter-sound proficiency
  • understand that words are made up of sounds that can be written down as letters
  • proficiency in phonological and phonemic awareness
  • the ability to quickly decode letters and blend sounds together to make words

Selecting Which Words To Teach

You may have a set list of sight words and the order in which you have to teach them. Just remember, one of the prerequisites for mapping out words is that students have a strong letter-sound proficiency. Considering this, it would only make sense to me that consider using letters learned when selecting words to map. For instance, I may wait to teach the word ‘did’ if I had not yet introduced the letters ‘d’ or ‘i.’

How Many Words Should I Teach?

While different teachers have different expectations, once I start teaching sight words, I like to teach no more than 2 irregularly spelled sight words like ‘said’ or ‘the’ (We call these ‘heart words’ in my class.) and no more than 4 additional decodable words such as ‘can’ or ‘did’ in a given week. This seems to work well for my classroom. Then, if I have students who struggle with this many, I can always slow down and do less with them. I always have built-in ‘review’ weeks where I can reteach words if I think they need it, too.

Whole-Group Sight Word Introduction

All sight words are introduced to my class as a whole group. The routine that I have established that works well for me goes like this:

Student using orthographic mapping to map out the word 'said.'
  • I will verbally introduce the word to the class without showing it to them. I use the word in several sentences to ensure they understand it. Next, I give them the opportunity to use it in a sentence by selecting a couple of students to create a sentence of their own.
  • Next, I will display a mapping map using a document camera. Students work through the steps with me while mapping the sight word. We tap it, map it, graph it, identify any parts that have to be remembered by heart, and then write the whole word again.

This is what will happen on the first day of introducing a new word. On the second day, students will use their own maps and will map out the words with me together. By doing this, they build up familiarity and confidence that makes mapping words second nature to them after just a few weeks.

It might be helpful to note that my mapping mats have changed a bit over the years as I made changes that worked best for my class. Currently, the maps I use look like the ones below. These are actually something you can grab for free if you’d like to use them in your own classroom. Just scroll down to the bottom of this blog post to grab yours. I laminate these and place them in a zipper pouch with a pen, eraser, and manipulatives. It makes it really easy for us to grab, map, and go.

In case you’re wondering, you can click on the links below to find out where I get all the materials for these packets.

More Small Group Mapping Practice for Heart Words

If you remember, Heart Words are the irregularly spelled sight words that we learn. Because these words take a bit more practice, I also will use mapping worksheets so that students can get a bit more practice. These can be done independently, but at the beginning of the year, I like to do this with my students during small group instruction time. Not only does it reinforce the mapping process, but it has a beneficial, multisensory component.

Also, because I use a Handwriting Without Tears-like font, I can do a bit of handwriting instruction at the same time. If you’d like to learn more about mapping during small group instruction and how using a multi-sensory approach to mapping can help with mapping words, ‘check out my blog post HERE.

I also use this small group instruction time to work with the words we have already learned and have students spend time comparing and sorting words. These Free Editable Heart Word Cards give students the opportunity to really focus and pay attention to the differences and patterns in words. This is especially useful in helping them discern the difference in words that for instant start with the same letter.

If you’d like a copy of these cards, you can grab this editable set by clicking on the resource cover at the end of this post.

And of course, I also give students plenty of opportunities to practice using these words and other words they are learning by working with decodable texts.

Student reading decodable books.

Indendepent Mapping Practice

As students become more proficient with mapping, there are also some independent, self-correcting mapping activities that I include in their literacy centers as well.

Using ball word activities to map out the word 'was.'

These activities, in addition to several games and multisensory options, give students plenty of time to practice using words and build familiarity with them.

Ball Words As Part of Sight Word Instruction

As a way to organize my high-frequency word work and keep students motivated with learning to read them fluently, I also use a program that I designed called, Ball Words. While my students are only expected to learn around 60 high-frequency words by sight in kindergarten, I often find that some students are interested in learning more. So I have 220 words that I have printed on different sets of sports ‘balls.’ There are 20 words (decodable and irregularly spelled) on each set of balls.

As students are introduced and work through a list of words, they have special games and activities to help them map out these words and practice using them. When they feel that they have learned the words on their particular ball, they can sign up to read them to me. If they have mastered their list and can read the words fluently, they get recognized and celebrated. They received a certificate, and a brag tag, and their name goes on my Ball Word Hall of Fame Poster. My students also have the opportunity to visit my treasure box when they pass a level of words. This is just something I like to do, but it really is a personal preference.

Frequently Ask Questions about Ball Words

How do you introduce the words to students? The first 60 or so words are actually part of my sight word instruction. We map these out and I model them in class. For students who move beyond those words, I always sit down with students and map out the next word lists with them before letting them work on the list independently. I do not want students just memorizing these words. The extra time it takes to do this is worth it. Insures when they do read these words, they have a solid place in their memory.

Do you send a list for students to practice at home? Yes, but not until they have mapped the words out with me first. I also send a letter home to parents. That note explains how we teach sight words and how they can practice with their child. Most importantly, I encourage parents to read the decodable readers I have sent home with their child that include these ‘sight’ words to help build reading fluency.

What are the benefits of using Ball Words? The most significant benefit of ball words is that it absolutely motivates my students. Similarly, it makes them want to see their classmates succeed, too. I love that. I do think the other benefit is that it makes it easy to offer differentiated word study activities for students. Students are being challenged at their specific readiness level. It’s never too difficult or too easy.

If you’d like to know about Ball Words, please check out my Ball Word Post here.

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Teaching sight words in early elementary classrooms can be a challenge. However, through orthographic mapping, students do more than just memorize words. By mapping out words, kindergarten and first grade students will receive explicit instruction to help them make connections and recoginize patterns in words. While teachers understand the importance of this, it is difficult to know how to make it work in a real classroom.  This blog post will show you how.

Grab Your Freebie Here!

Don’t forget to grab your free Mapping Mats below.

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and to grab your set of Editable Heart Word Cards, click on the picture below. It will open in a Dropbox link, but you will want to download it to your computer as it is a Powerpoint document.

Marsha Moffit McGuire

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