Reading Time: 15 minutes 🙂
Fact-checked by Vincenza De Falco, Autism & Learning Disabilities Specialist Coach.
Teaching sight words to children stimulates their reading faster and easier because they don’t need to sound out sight words if they have them memorized. Children with Autism may learn differently at some level, but they can still benefit from traditional reading curricula that neurotypical children use.
If that’s the case, are there any particular techniques to teach sight words to Autistic children?
Minor modifications to make when teaching sight words to children with Autism include combining pictures with words, breaking down lessons into smaller portions, and creating games for sight word recognition. Create a reading area and point out words on everything you see.
Since sight word recognition is crucial to reading success for all children, including those with Autism, you may want to keep reading to find creative ways to teach sight words to Autistic children.
Word Pictures Only Go So Far in Reading
Some words don’t have a picture associated with it, such as ‘the,’ ‘and,’ ‘are,’ and ‘an.’ But these words are essential to the story’s flow or article. Imagine if those words were missing in this article and how difficult it would be to read it.
When teaching children to read, teachers use picture cards with the name of what the picture is on the card’s back. Some Autistic children learn better with pictures, though not all, so picture cards can work up to a point to teach sight words. But picture cards stop working when there are no pictures to go with the words, such as the words listed above.
So what is the solution? When teaching sight words, teachers often use sight word lists developed by educators either in the 1930s or the 1950s, depending on the list used, and were designed to help children recognize words in 80-90% of books or magazines.
When children can recognize at least 90% of these words, they can put their focus on words they don’t recognize as quickly. Children are tested on how quickly they recognize the sight words. If they immediately recognize the words on a particular grade level list, they move up until they find difficulty recognizing the words.
Dolch Sight Word Lists
Dr. Edward William Dolch was an educator in the 1930s and 40s who studied children’s books’ most common words to create a list of words that children should recognize by sight. The words are divided by grade level (Pre-K to 3rd grade), with a separate noun list, and there are around 300 words.
Fry Sight Word Lists
Based on Dr. Dolch’s work, Dr. Edward Fry updated the list in the 1950s to include words from children’s books and added another 700 words to have 1,000 words. He also included advanced words that children up to 10th grade should know. There are no words for Pre-K or Kindergarten, but instead, it starts in first grade.
The lists are divided into grade level, the order of frequency that the words appear in most published works, and by the group.
Sight Words and Autism
Autistic children tend to have more difficulty learning how to read with phonics because of the rules’ exceptions. They think more in concrete terms and don’t always understand the differences between the silent E and the GH in words like “site” or “sight.”
Sight words can eliminate some of the confusion caused by phonics surrounding the slight differences between words for children with Autism. If a child can memorize words by sight, they will have less difficulty learning how to read. Phonics works in the background of sight words to help the child learn how to read unfamiliar words later.
Phonics vs. Memorization: Which Is Better?
Phonics is a time-tested method of teaching children how to read by sounding out words while reading. Memorization, on the other hand, is teaching children words by sight so they can memorize them. Both have their drawbacks and benefits, as there are certain times when kids need to know how to sound out words that they don’t know.
Both methods are used in traditional curricula, but is one better than the other for teaching Autistic children how to read? Or can Autistic children benefit from traditional curricula used in regular classrooms?
Phonics and Memorization Work in Tandem With Each Other
Sight words can be recognized by sight and are taught a few words at a time. Phonics teaches children how to sound out words that are unfamiliar to them. Both methods can be taught together as they work in tandem with each other.
For example, an Autistic child is speeding along, learning phonics’ rules, and making good progress. But when they get to the exceptions to the rules, like the silent E or the IE or EIGH, they may have difficulty sounding the words out because they are still thinking of the prior rules they learned initially.
Sight words eliminate this problem by having the child memorize a list of words per year until they have memorized at least 80% of the words they will encounter in books and magazines. Not everyone can remember all the words they will come across while reading and will need to understand how to sound out words they don’t recognize.
Autistic children tend to learn with definite rules and do not often comprehend that there are exceptions to every rule. Phonics can go as far as they can understand, but sight words will keep them reading. When they learn how to read better, phonics lessons might start making sense. But sight words are still essential to get the child reading quickly.
You Can Use Traditional Phonics Lessons From Educational Curricula
It is a myth that Autistic children need “specialized” lesson plans when being taught to read. While Autistic children might take a longer time with learning in some respects, the reading and phonics curriculum used in traditional classrooms can teach Autistic children how to read. Several children on the Autism Spectrum have done well with conventional curricula and received doctorate degrees.
When it comes time to review the “special rules” and exceptions to the rules, try using concrete examples about how those exceptions can exist that make sense to the child. For example, a mom can have three sons. Son A was born first, then son B was born second, and son C was born last. But all three sons belong to one mom.
It’s the same with exceptions to the rules–they are all correct for different situations and word meanings.
Immerse Your Environment With Reading Opportunities
It’s no secret that children in a rich reading environment are often better readers than those who live in environments where reading is not as essential. Teaching children with Autism how to read sight words begins at home by labeling things and creating a reading corner that entices your child to learn how to read.
When your child sees you reading or sees all these words, they will be curious enough to ask questions and try to learn the words they see around them. That’s why it is so crucial that sight words be taught in conjunction with other reading opportunities.
Teaching a child with Autism how to read sight words starts with enriching your home or classroom with multiple reading opportunities. Just because there is structured learning time for reading doesn’t mean that that should be the only time to encourage reading. Reading doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the more opportunities a child has to read, the more they will practice reading.
Label Everything in Your House
Recognizing sight words becomes second-nature when everyday items are labeled, like water, bath, stove, and cup. Label everything in your child’s room and the kitchen, bathroom, living room, and garage. Label these items while at the same time, telling your child what the word is because when they have no frame of reference, they won’t know what the word says or means.
Later, if they forget what the word is, remind them, or tell them it’s the labeled object. The point of this exercise is to help your child associate certain words with objects, which works with their ability to think in pictures. As they associate words with objects, they will be more likely to begin putting other words with objects or create a pattern that forms reading.
Let Your Child See You Reading Often
Whether they are diagnosed with Autism or not, children imitate the behaviors they see their parents do, including reading or watching TV. When parents read for fun, whether on an electronic device or a print book, children get the idea that reading is essential and will want to do the same thing they see their parents doing.
One way to encourage reading is to read with your children at a particular time every day. A consistent routine is an effective method to facilitate learning in children with Autism as they become confused and anxious when there is no set routine. Bedtime is usually used as storytime, which you could do, or you could have a reading time after supper.
The more a child with Autism is exposed to words through reading or being read to, the more likely they are to learn sight words quickly.
Create a “Reading Room” or Corner in Your House
Another way to encourage learning sight words is to create a unique reading nook in your home or classroom. Place fluffy beanbag chairs and a soft rug in a corner, small bookcases, and your child’s favorite books to encourage self-reading. Put up posters of their favorite characters from books or movies, which will encourage them to want to learn how to read, especially if the books involve their favorite characters.
An example of this can be seen in the child who loved Sonic the Hedgehog. They couldn’t stop talking about this character and even had a hedgehog for a pet. But they didn’t want to sit still long enough to learn how to read.
One day, a reading corner appeared in their home, complete with Sonic the Hedgehog posters, books, and an oversized child’s chair with Sonic. Once the child saw this, they immediately went to the chair, sat down, and opened the books. But because they couldn’t read yet, they begged their mom to teach them.
Most programs will try to teach a child the sight words without attending to the rest of the world of reading, making the learning process more complicated than it needs to be. Immerse your child in reading activities, and they will quickly start recognizing sight words.
Point Out Words in Stores, Doctor’s Offices, and Other Public Spaces
To help your child understand that words are everywhere and that reading is a consistent process, start pointing out words that you think they might recognize when you are out in public spaces like doctor’s offices, stores, parks, and restaurants.
- Look at menus together and ask your child if they recognize any words, and if they don’t, start finding words that they are working on with you or the teacher and repeat the word after you.
- Find street signs and see if they can recognize any words or associate any words with pictures.
- Grocery stores are full of words–packages, aisle signs, and food signs provide a wealth of words for your child to practice their sight words. Pointing out words in public shows how much there is to read and why it is crucial to learn how to read.
Combine Pictures With Words
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” or so the saying goes. The phrase is even more true when children learn and think in pictures. When teaching an Autistic child sight words, combine pictures with the words you are teaching them. You could find flashcards with pictures of different objects with the name of the object on the back. Show the word to the child, then the object.
The child should then be able to recognize the word and associate it with the picture. The next time you show them the word, they should remember the object and tell you what the word is.
Pictures help cement the word’s meaning in a child’s mind, so combining pictures with words in your lessons will help the child learn sight words quickly.
Teach Comprehension With Sight Words
Autistic children might pick up reading very quickly, but they can’t answer the question when asked about what they just read. Teaching sight words accomplish only half the battle because if they only learn to recognize the words but don’t understand what they mean, reading will become pointless.
Sight words help a child read faster and with less struggle, but comprehension is equally as important.
How can you teach comprehension with sight words?
Draw a Picture or Give the Meaning of Each Sight Word
Each sight word on the Dolch or Fry sight word list has a meaning, even if they are helping words like ‘a,’ ‘and,’ or ‘the.’ Autistic children often learn and think in pictures, so when teaching a child with Autism sight words, try drawing a picture of the word if the word is not an article word. If you’re working on the word ‘blue,’ then use a marker or crayon and color a blue square next to the word.
If the word is ‘water,’ draw a water source, such as a river, ocean, or water coming out of a faucet.
Each word needs to be explained or defined so that as the child starts learning sight words, they can begin to comprehend books and stories that they read in the future.
Take a Break From Reading and Ask if They Understand
When your child is reading to you, have them take a break so you can ask them if they understand what they just read. Ask the child what just happened in the story, or what the article is saying. If they don’t answer, have them reread the passage, but slower this time. Take the time to work through what the story is saying through word meanings and sentence structure.
Break Down Lessons Into Small Portions
When first teaching a child with Autism how to recognize sight words, all those words might become overwhelming. Lessons, therefore, need to be broken down into smaller portions. The lesson plans that come with the Fry sight word lists suggest teaching three words per lesson, then using the game time to practice the lesson’s words.
If your child cannot handle three words per lesson, try teaching one word per lesson until they get it. But if your child can handle more than three words per lesson, then increase the number of words by one until your child is challenged, but not overwhelmed.
Use Sight, Sound, and Touch to Teach Sight Words
Multi-sensory techniques are often used when teaching Autistic children how to read than other children because of how differently they learn. Using sight is only one sensory experience that you can use while teaching an Autistic child sight words.
Hearing the word said as you show the word to the child will help them identify the word. But, when you add a tactile experience with the word, they will remember the word more, as all senses are being used.
Use the Match, Select, and Name Method
Teachers will often start out teaching sight words by showing flashcards of one word per card, telling the child what the word is, then putting it down, and showing another card to the child. Per each learning session, the teacher and child can work through 3-5 new words.
During the game’s Matching phase, the teacher will pull out two cards with the same word on it, and one with a different word. The teacher will then hand the child two cards–one that matches the teacher’s word and another word.
He will then ask the child which one of the words matches the teacher’s word and put the correct card next to the word. When the child gets this correct at least five times, they move on to the next phase.
In the Select phase of the game, the teacher will put down three different words and then ask them to find a certain word. The child will then select the word card that the teacher asked for out of the three cards. After the child gets the words correct at least five times, they move on to the last phase.
The last phase of the game, the Name phase, requires the child to identify each word that the teacher puts down. When the teacher puts a word on the table, they will ask the child what the word is. After the child identifies it correctly, the teacher moves on to the next word, then the next, until the day’s words are learned.
Once all the parameters have been met, the day’s lesson is complete, and they can move on to other lessons, should they choose to do so.
Create Other Word Games That Teach Sight Words
Games effectively teach sight words because they reinforce memorizing the words, and it keeps the children engaged in learning. The following games can work to support sight word lessons and, when played with other children, can teach necessary social skills to children with Autism.
Play “I Spy” With Words
Do you remember that childhood game, “I spy with my little eye…”? One person would say that phrase, then say “something black and round.” The other children then searched the room for something black and round until one child found what the other child “spied.”
A similar game to teach sight words could be set up by putting word cards on the wall. The teacher could say, “I spy with my little eye the word blue.” Then the child, or children, would look for that word until one child finds it. Children could take turns “spying” for a word, which boosts their confidence and ability to read.
Memory Games Can Teach Sight Words
The old memory game where children search for two pictures that are the same can be turned into a new game where they search for the same word. Instead of using pictures, teachers can put word cards face down on the table, with two cards per word. If there are multiple children in the class, they can take one turn, each turning up two cards.
Each child who makes at least one match can get a reward if that is how you want to work the game.
Create Sight Word Games With Old Games
Most card and board games can be turned into games that teach sight words. Games like “Go Fish,” “Dominos,” or even “Candyland” can teach sight words with slight tweaks to the game pieces. The word cards you use to teach sight words can be used as cards for Go Fish or as game pieces in Dominos.
Common Myths Debunked About Teaching Autistic Children How to Read
Teaching children with Autism how to recognize sight words is not all that different from teaching neurotypical children sight word recognition. While they may learn differently somehow, every person learns how to read in much the same way.
- A sight word only curriculum is the way to teach all autistic children. Because of the exceptions to the phonics rules, you might be tempted to think that it’s best to use a “sight word only” curriculum for Autistic children. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t introduce phonics to them. It works together with sight word teaching and opens the door to full reading capabilities.
- Traditional curricula don’t work for children with autism. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can’t use conventional reading curricula with Autistic children. Traditional lesson plans are the perfect place to start. If the child has a problem with understanding the lesson, then customize your lesson to suit the child’s needs.
- “One size fits all.” Not all Autistic children learn the same way. So the suggestions in this article may not work for the child you are working with, but it’s a place to start. Should you find the need to change the lessons or your techniques, please do so. Create the lesson to meet the child where they are, and don’t be afraid to customize traditional lessons.
While Autistic children learn in different ways, or they might be non-verbal, they can still be taught how to read. Behavioral issues often get in the way of teachers and parents providing children with reading lessons, which is a source of frustration for the child and the parent or teacher. Teach them how to read anyway, because not doing so is a disservice to them.
Work with the behavior, address what the child needs, and then keep going with reading lessons. It will be worth the effort when the child can read fluently.
Vincenza De Falco is an Autism & Learning Disabilities (LD) specialist coach with extensive experience working with young people with various needs in different settings. Her passion for Autism & LD started as a volunteer at a multi-functional provision for Autism whilst studying for a BA in Theatre, Education, and Deaf Studies.
Throughout her career, Vincenza continues her professional development alongside working within numerous support and leadership roles in education and charities. Having gained Level 3 in Speech and Language Support, HLTA qualification, Level 3 Award in Education and Training, and Level 3 CMI Coaching qualification, Vincenza has furthered her expertise within Autism & LD.
Entering the Third Sector as a Project Manager developing and delivering a specialist NEET program, she subsequently joined ThinkForward’s newest venture DFN MoveForward, supporting young people with Autism & LD to successfully transition from education into paid employment. Through 1:1 coaching, family support, and training employers to become disability confident, Vincenza builds bespoke programs for young people with the end goal of work readiness and employment. Through Vincenza’s passion for creating systemic change in Disability and employment, she forms part of the successful partnership running the DFN Project Search Supported Internship at Moorfields Eye Hospital.
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- Teaching Exceptional Thinkers: Learning to Read…With Autism
- Teaching Exceptional Thinkers: Temple Grandin: The Girl Who Thought in Pictures
- All About Learning Press: Teaching Reading and Spelling to Children With Autism
- The Autism Helper: The Power of Sight Word Fluency
- Sight Words: Dolch Sight Words Lists
- Sight Words: Fry Sight Words Lists
- Noodle Nook: Phonics or Sight Words
- The Education Alliance: 5 Ways to Help Teach Your Child With Autism How to Read
- Autism Classroom News and Resources: How Can We Best Teach Reading to Students With Autism?
- Sight Words: Sight Word Games
- Joy in the Journey: The Truth About Sight Words vs. Phonics