Among the comments on her blog, Anne Castles wrote:I wonder if a helpful way of dealing with the definitional problem is to move away from the term “sight words” and instead just make a distinction between “rule-focus” and “word-focus” in reading instruction. We know that children need to be explicitly taught the correspondences between letters and sounds in English as part of a structured program. Broadly speaking, when we are teaching those correspondences, we are taking a “rule-focus” (even though the teaching may involve words, and so children may simultaneously be learning to recognise the spellings of those words as they are learning the rules). We also know that some words do not follow those typical rules and that, if they are ones that children are likely to see regularly, they need some special attention. So when we teach these words, we take a “word-focus” (even though, again, a child may still be learning rules as part of this teaching, as not all of the grapheme-correspondences in the word will be irregular).
If I understand this correctly, it fits in with something I’ve long thought.
A key reason for teaching phonics-for-reading is to enable children to read as many words as possible without help. I see this as ‘rule-focus’ teaching. We start by teaching some very basic ‘rules’ – e.g. when you see the ‘s’ shape, say /s/; when you see the ‘a’ shape, say /a/ (modelling the sound as in ‘ant’); when you see the ‘t’ shape, say /t/. We teach blending as soon as the first few correspondences have been taught, so words are introduced early, but only a few are actually used in teaching – from there on we expect children to be able to read dozens (if not hundreds) more words independently by applying those letter-sound ‘rules’. Later, we move on to teaching them that when they see ‘ea’, they may need to try both the /e/ and /ee/ sounds; again, we use a few words in teaching both these, but we expect children to be able to read many other words unaided by applying that same rule.
At this point, however, we probably teach ‘great, ‘break’ and ‘steak’ – a group of 3 in which the ‘ea’ is translated into a sound which is neither /e/ nor /ee/ and which will not enable the children to read any other root words, for the simple reason that there are none. Here, therefore, we have a ‘word-focus’ – all the relevant root words are explicitly taught, and there are no others which children can read by applying that bit of letter-sound knowledge. If there’s a rule, it’s ‘When you see “ea”, try both /e/ and /ee/ if necessary, unless the word is one of the three you have been explicitly taught’ – and a word-focus approach will also be needed when children encounter words such as ‘idea’, ‘ocean’, 'oceanic' and ‘creation’.
It’s important to teach children what happens as a rule (rule-focus), but it’s also important to teach them when the ‘as a rule’ principle doesn’t apply (word-focus). In this sense, there are regular and irregular words, and I don’t think it’s helpful to say that there aren’t.