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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!

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

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Sarah Aldrich

says:

We’ve been teaching sight words by memorization and it’s been very slow going. I would love to try a different approach to see if my daughter responds to that better.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Memorization is just plain hard for some children, Sarah. Let me know if you have any questions about All About Reading or need more details on how it minimizes memorization.

Julie

says:

This is so helpful! Thanks!

Emily

says:

This is such a helpful explanation. Thank you!

Erin

says:

Thanks for this post. We’ve been struggling to learn 50 sight words with our previous program for my 1st grader and he HATES it! I’m excied to try All About Reading and the games mentioned in this post. My son is going to enjoy doing games so much more than flash card repititions.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Erin. Memorization is hard for many children, so reducing the number of things that must be memorized is very helpful!

If you find there is anything about All About Reading your son finds hard or not enjoyable, just let us know! We can help you come up with alternative activities to cover the same concepts but in ways he can understand or enjoy more.

Keren Keizer Levi

says:

thank you , this article is very clear and helpful.
I’m sorry for your loss, I hope you have many good memories of your mom.

Elizabeth H.

says:

Great article!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Elizabeth.

Amber Endicott

says:

Such great learning techniques!

Kim Brown

says:

Will soon be teaching sight words. Looks like some helpful material

Erin Whitaker

says:

Thank you so much for this helpful information!

Tracy

says:

This is so beneficial. Thank you for the extra free game samples too! :)

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Tracy! I hope you enjoy them.

Emma

says:

I compiled lists of sight words this year that I thought we were “supposed” to be learning because they were out there. I like your definition and approach here better.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Glad you find our approach better, Emma!

LeAnne Ackles

says:

Sight words are so important for learners!! I love how you explained this subject!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, LeAnne!

Rachel

says:

Thanks for the helpful suggestions. My kindergartener is doing so well with y’alls program we are already about to start level 2. We use all these suggestions and games y’all provide it has made learning to read easy and fun for him

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad to hear that your child is doing so well, Rachel!

April B

says:

So helpful! Thanks!

Rebecca Gudino

says:

My 2nd grade daughter has needed some extra support in reading and we love this program. Thank you!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m pleased to hear the All About Reading is working out so well for your daughter, Rebecca!

Amanda

says:

Thanks for breaking down such a complicated topic!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Amanda.

Beth

says:

What about when sight words can be instantly And effortlessly recognized but they cannot be spelled with good regularity or consistency?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Beth,
This is the reason why Why We Teach Reading and Spelling Separately. We don’t want to hold a child from moving forward in reading because he or she may be having difficulty spelling the same words. Spelling is a different and more difficult skill.

You may find our Is All About Spelling Right for My Child? helpful.

Amsatou

says:

Thank you all very helpful, my daughter reads great . What we are looking for is to become a great speller, site word as well as common spelling literacy’s.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

All About Spelling will provide what you are looking for, Amsatou. You may find our Is All About Spelling Right for My Child? blog post helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or need more information.

Megan

says:

learning more sight words than AAR has (as leap words) has actually been quite helpful for my 8 year old dyslexic son. He has to decode everything no matter how many times he has seen it with the exception of the 50 or so sight words he has memorized. Some of his words are decodable (high frequency) but now he doesn’t have to decode them. We still love AAR and AAS but have just added in more sight words (my other kids did not need this).

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Megan,
Some students do need extra practice with reading to transition from sounding out every word to reading fluently. The difficulty with focusing on memorizing words is that students will only be fluent with words they have memorized. We want students to be able to read fluently with all words, and for some students that takes time.

My youngest daughter had trouble with fluency like this, but in time we overcame it. Students who struggle with fluency benefit from rereading the same story two or three days in a row to gain fluency and confidence. Buddy Reading can be very powerful in helping students who are in this stage of struggling with fluency.

Rereading the stories will help accomplish these goals:

– Increase word rate

– Improve prosody. Prosody is “expressive reading.” It involves phrasing (grouping words into meaningful phrases), emphasis, and intonation (raising pitch at the end of questions, lowering pitch at the end of sentences)

– Improve automaticity (be able to recognize most words automatically without having to sound them out each time)
Here’s more help with Overcoming Obstacles when Reading AAR Stories.

You can also do a variation of buddy reading called “echo reading.” You read a few sentences with full expression, and then your child reads the same sentences, matching your expression as close as possible. Do this for approximately five minutes a day, or whatever is a comfortable length of time for your child. Add in lots of praise when your child shows even a bit of improvement.

The fluency practice pages can be re-used as well. You might enjoy our 16 Ways to Make Practice Sheets Fun. (And check out the comments as well–lots of fun suggestions in there!)

My daughter needed two years in All About Reading level 1 before she had the fluency in reading to be ready for All About Reading level 2. She still needed to do buddy reading in level 2, but it went faster taking only a year. Level 3 was a bit faster than that, and level 4 faster still. She was 11 when she finished All About Reading, but she is a strong, confident, fluent reader now and has the skills to sound out any unfamiliar word.

Please let me know if you have any questions or would like more information. I completely understand how worrisome and frustrating it can be when a child has to sound out a word that she has read four times in the last five minutes. But with time and lots of reading practice, fluent reading is possible without limiting a child to what they can memorize.

Megan

says:

thanks. we do some of this and I will try the other suggestions. we definitely don’t focus on memorizing words. however, as a dyslexic kid, knowing the commonly used words has really helped his confidence. he has all the skills to sound out words (for as far as we are in the program), but then has problems remembering what he sounded out first when it’s time to go back and blend. He is my 4th child and the only one with dyslexia and so I am learning a lot with him. I don’t get worried or frustrated because he is quite brilliant :)

Carmeta

says:

I like the explanation of the words which are seen as sight words but yet they can be decoded. I have always looked at it from that handle myself but not as detailed.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Carmeta,
Yes! So many words are straight-forward to sound out and do not need to be memorized.

And even true “rule-breakers” usually have no more than one phonogram saying a sound we don’t expect, but all the rest are predictable. In the word “was”, for example, only A says a sound we don’t expect from it. Knowing this helps students even with rule-breakers, as they can use some of the letters to help them remember what the word should be.

Chelsea Sanderson

says:

Will some of the Leap Words, like ‘again’ that don’t use common sounds, but can be decoded/explained – will those Leap Words cease being Leap Words at some point in the program because the student has learned all the rules and phonograms to make sense of it? About when does that start to happen if so?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Great question, Chelsea!

Yes, when we do get to the point that the concept is taught, the word is brought up again as a normal word, not a Leap Word. When that happens varies with each word. The word “no” is taught as a Leap Word in All About Reading level 1 lesson 31. It is reviewed when the concept of long vowels in open syllables is taught in lesson 52 of the same level.

Note, the word “again” is not taught as a Leap Word in All About Reading. If you are interested in all the Leap Words taught in AAR and the level they are taught in, we have a “Sight Word (Leap Word) Assessment” form near the end of our 12 Reasons Teachers Love All About Reading and All About Spelling blog post.

Does this clear it up for you? Please let me know if you have additional questions or would like more information.

Luqman Michel

says:

Overall, a nicely written article.

Daniela

says:

I really like the clarification on what can be considered a sight word. It also makes sense that you would want to minimize the need for mass memorizing of words but recognizing that some words must be memorized.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Daniela. It is important for many children to minimize rote memorization as much as possible.

Danielle W.

says:

I struggled in school with reading due to a sight word program that was introduced when i was in Kindergarten. It was awful and i can remember how my parents fought with the school. Now my daughter is in kindergarten. The schools in our area are still teaching the same program and she is struggling as well. They are relying heavily on whole word memorization and sight words and she is just so frustrated she just gives up. They wanted to hold her back from 1st grade based solely on sight words. We started working with her outside of school with sounds and blending and if she knows the sounds she can read the word. This led me to find something out there to teach her to read as the school is just not interested in teaching anything else. I do not want her to go through what i went through. We have purchased All About reading Level 1 and just received it this week. She is so excited to start the program and learn how to read.

Jeff

says:

That’s so discouraging that a school still teaches whole language in 2020. AAR is great. There are many resources out there to teach students “sight words,” with little to no memorization. I’m sorry to hear about your daughter’s struggles, but it great that you found this program already!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Danielle,
Thank you for sharing your story. Memorizing lots and lots of words is a struggle for many children. As you begin All About Reading, let me know if you have any questions or need anything.

Donna Murphy Preston

says:

When or should students learn to spell Fry words?Is this addressed in your spelling program? I have one student using level 2 ( 7.5 years old)and the other in level 1(5.5 years old).

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Good question, Donna.

All About Spelling teaches words from the Dolch, Fry, and Ayres lists, with the exception of a few words that aren’t in common usage anymore. Plus, AAS teaches many words beyond these lists. However, these lists aren’t taught separately from the rest of the program. Words from these lists are taught as they fit in the rules and patterns taught throughout All About Spelling.

Take a look at this video that discusses the Dolch list. 90% of the list is phonetically regular. The Fry’s list is much the same.

I hope this clears up your questions, but let me know if you need more information. You don’t need to worry about adding words to All About Spelling.

gloria

says:

VERY GOOD SIGHT WORDS ARE GOOD IN TEACHING READING I AGREE. SEND ME MORE WAYS OF TEACHING SIGHT WORDS AND GAMES.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Gloria,
This blog post is our best resource on teaching sight words. However, we have tons of games and activities. Check out our Resources page.

Let me know if you need anything else.

Angie Rhodes

says:

I love the way AAR teaches sight words, and the difference between words so commonly used that they become words kids know on sight versus “leap” words.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Angie,
It’s kind of wonderful how children can become instantaneous readers of so very many words, isn’t it? 😊

JOINA AYUKU

says:

Thanks for the updates. Looking forward to work with it, especially with children who have learning difficulties. This are very good tips for me to apply.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Joina,
You’re welcome. 😊

Sally Chancellor

says:

Great thoughts, thanks!

Jan Cianchi

says:

I continue to be really impressed by this company. Not only is the AAR program thorough and user-friendly, but they are quick to respond very helpfully to emails, and the blogs are also really informative. I’ve been staring at that Dolch sight word list for a couple of years now, wondering why seemingly decodable words make up most of the list. So thank-you for that sight word myth-busting video! Now I can stop thinking I’m missing something and get on with just teaching the decoding rules!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You are so welcome, Jan! I’m glad this helped you to put the Dolch sight word list out of mind.

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