Sight Words: What You Need to Know

If you’ve been teaching reading for a while, you’ve undoubtedly come across the term sight words, and you probably have some questions about them. Should you teach sight words? What’s the best way to approach sight words? Is it bad to use a curriculum that teaches sight words?

In fact, a common question we get is, “Do you teach sight words in the All About Reading program? ” But before we jump into the details, let’s be sure we’re talking about the same definition for the term sight words.

Our Working Definition of Sight Word

frog looking through a magnifying glass

At its most basic–and this is what we mean when we talk about sight words–a sight word is a word that can be read instantly, without conscious attention.

For example, if you see the word peanut and recognize it instantly, peanut is a sight word for you. You just see the word and can read it right away without having to sound it out. In fact, if you are a fluent reader, chances are you don’t need to stop to decode words as you read this blog post because every word in this post is a sight word for you.

But there are three other commonly used definitions for sight words that you should be aware of:

  • Irregular words that can’t be decoded using phonics and must be memorized, such as of, could, and said.
  • The “whole word” or “look-say” approach to teaching reading, also known as the “sight word approach.” This approach is the opposite of phonics, and words are memorized as a whole.
  • Words that appear on high-frequency word lists such as the popular Dolch Sight Word and Fry’s Instant Word lists. (Many educators believe that the words on these lists must be learned through rote memorization, but we bust that myth in this video.)

So now you can see why sight words can cause so much angst! Educators have conflicting ideas about sight words and how to teach them, and in large part that stems from having different definitions for what sight words are.

But you are in safe territory here.😊

In this article, you’ll find out how to minimize the number of sight words that your child needs to memorize, while maximizing his ability to successfully master these words.

How Fast Is “Instant”?

Now that we’ve settled on the definition for sight words as “any words that can be read instantly, without conscious attention,” that may lead some people to wonder how fast is “instant”? And that’s a great question!

Basically, we want kids to see a word and be unable to not read it. Even before they’ve realized that they are looking at the word, they’ve unconsciously read it.

Here’s a demonstration of what I mean.

(Download this PDF if you want to try this experiment with your family and friends!)

As explained in the short video above, the Stroop effect1 shows that word recognition can be even more automatic than something as basic as color recognition.

So that’s what we mean by “instant.”

We want children to develop automaticity when reading, so they don’t even have to think about decoding words—they just automatically know the words. Ideally, we want reading to become as effortless and unconscious as breathing.

But what about words that aren’t as easily decoded? How should those words be taught?

Some Words Need to Be Learned Through Rote Memorization

The vast majority of words don’t need to be taught by rote memorization. Even the Dolch Sight Word list is mostly decodable (video). But there are some words that do need to be memorized.

Some programs call these “Red Words,” “Outlaw Words,” “Sight Words,” or “Watch-Out” words. In All About Reading, we call them Leap Words. Generally, these are high-frequency words that either don’t follow the normal phonetic patterns or contain phonograms that students haven’t practiced yet. Students “leap ahead” to learn these words as sight words.

Here’s an example of two flashcards used to practice the Leap Words could and again. In the word could, the L isn’t pronounced. In the word again, the AI says /ĕ/, which isn’t one of its typical sounds. The frog graphic acts as a visual reminder that the words are being treated as sight words that need to be memorized.

leap word cards

Leap Words comprise a small percentage of words taught. For example, out of the 200 words taught in All About Reading Level 1, only 11 are Leap Words.

Several techniques are used to help your student remember the Leap Words:

  • Leap Word Cards are kept behind the Review divider in your student’s Reading Review Box until your student has achieved instant recognition of the word.
  • Leap Words frequently appear on the Practice Sheets.
  • Leap Words are used frequently in the decodable readers.
  • If a Leap Word causes your student trouble, have your student use a light-colored crayon to circle the part of the word that doesn’t say what your student expects it to say.
  • Help your student see that Leap Words generally have just one or two letters that are troublesome, while the rest of the letters say their regular sounds and follow normal patterns.

For typical students who do not struggle with reading, very little practice is needed to move a word into long-term memory. They may encounter the word just one to five times, and never have to sound it out again.

On the other hand, a struggling reader may need up to thirty exposures to a word before it becomes part of the child’s sight word vocabulary. So be patient and give your child the amount of practice she needs to develop a large sight word vocabulary.

Here Are 5 More Ways to Increase Your Child’s Sight Word Vocabulary

green frog sitting on a lily pad reading a book

These five methods increase the number of times your child encounters a word, helping move the word into long-term memory for instant recall:

The Bottom Line on Teaching Sight Words

When it comes to teaching sight words, here’s what you need to keep in mind:

  • The goal of teaching sight words is to allow your child to read easily and fluently, without conscious attention.
  • Some words—we call them Leap Words—can’t be decoded as easily and must be learned through rote memorization.
  • Increasing the number of times a child encounters a word helps move the word into the child’s long-term memory.

Are you looking for a reading program that doesn’t involve memorizing hundreds of sight words via rote memorization? All About Reading is a research-based program that walks you through all the steps to help your child achieve instant recall. And if you ever need a hand, we’re here to help.

All About Reading Product Line

What’s your take on teaching sight words? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

1Stroop, J.R. (1935). Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 18, 643-662.

sight words pinterest graphic
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Thanks for explaining. I have one child for whom reading is easy, and another who needs a bit more practice.

Lauren Myers


I love that explanations are provided as to why a word is a leap word. I feel it helps reinforce the rules and why this particular word doesn’t follow that rule.

Jennifer S


Thank you for the ideas for helping with sight words and the game links. Can’t wait to try it out on my daughter!



An excellent explanation, thank you!

Courtney Hubers


Sight words are so hard for my daughter. I can’t wait to try this!



Sight words are so hard for my daughter. I can’t wait to try this.



Thank you for differentiating the sight word definitions. It helps to define terms!



Good to hear this perspective on sight words

Beth Gillespie


Super helpful, thanks!



Can’t wait to “leap forward” with AAR!

Excellent blog so informative. I’ve been wrestling about the “lack” of sightwords in your level 1 curriculum. I completely get it now and I shall trust the process. ;)



This is super helpful. I could use all the help I can get!



I am so excited with these lessons and can’t wait to try them out.



Very enlightening! This totally changes my perspective on teaching sight words. Thanks for this insightful article.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m happy to hear that this blog post was helpful and informative to you. Please let us know if you have further questions about sight words or anything else.

Kristi Schiebel


I wish I had known about All About Reading when I started schooling my first kids. Looking forward to using it for the next one to teach read.



I love these blog posts. Thank you for all the tips and help!

Gail Timmer


Sight words, red words, pain in the neck words 😊 Patience required. My kids seem to learn these words if we play a game or two or ten with them.

Katy K.


I learned a lot reading this post. Thank you!

Carissa mengers


Thank you this is very helpful.



Definitely going to try some of these games. Thank you!

Kayla B


Very helpful!



I love the games & can’t wait to use them with my little ones!



“The” was my sons first sight word he learned using AALP Level one. He know associates the frog to sight words. 😁

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

My daughter calls them “Frog Words” instead of “Leap Words”. :D

Rachel Neufeld


This is the main reason All About Reading works well for our family. My oldest hates memorizing and it takes a lot of work for him to memorize a sight word. He does very well decoding words though. So he would never learn to read if taught mainly through sight words.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

We are so pleased to hear that All About Reading’s approach to sight words is working well with your child.



Preschool prep sight word DVDs have been helpful also



I hope to get my handicapped grandson to this point.



Enjoying the program with my preschooler. Would love to win the next level



Great article! We never did sight words but the more my son reads the more automatic the words become!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Yes! That is what I found as well. It is a slower process for some children, but it does work.

Cynthia Hochstetler


We like your curriculum and could use another level. Cynthia Hochstetler

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