Some reading programs use terms like “star words” to describe words that children should be able to recognize at a glance without having to sound them out. These words might also be called sight words, memory words or high-frequency words. Whatever your child’s school calls them, these words are usually very common words that aren’t spelled the way they sound.
For example, think about the word of. A child who isn’t familiar with this word will have trouble trying to sound it out—or “decode” it—because the spelling doesn’t follow standard phonetic rules. It sounds like uv but it looks like it should be pronounced more like off.
Memorizing these common but tricky words is important because kids won’t be able to sound them out while they’re reading. Word recognition is one of the five essential skills needed for reading comprehension. If readers spend their energy trying to figure out a word like of, they could lose steam before getting to less familiar words that have to be decoded. (For example, J.K. Rowling’s book titles tend to mix a few sight words in with some that need sounding out, such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.)
Schools set their own schedule for how many words children should recognize by sight at different points during the year. As you look for ways to help your child learn more of these words, it might help for you to begin by clarifying the goal with your child’s teacher.
Your child’s school might expect its students to recognize 30 star words by the end of kindergarten. If your daughter knows five in October, then there’s no need to panic. However, if she’s been working on the list for several months and is not improving, then you may have cause for concern.
That’s one reason why it’s good to talk with your child’s teacher. You can have these conversations in person or via email. These talks can help you find out whether the school is concerned about your child’s reading issues and get suggestions on how you can help with extra practice at home.