397

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.

Share This:

< Previous Post  Next Post >

Leave a Reply

Heather Lambourne

says:

I have to disagree with rote learning any word. Automaticity comes when the grapheme and what it can represent has been learnt. The brain automatically accesses the phonological route and the lexical route simultaneously. It just seems like you know the word ‘off by heart’, when actually you are reading it!

With the word C OUL D you should teach that OUL represents the short sound ‘oo’ as in L OO K.
A good mnemonic to use for spelling them is – could old uncle lie down
would old uncle lie down
and Should old uncle lie down
(Anyone not knowing) take the 1st sound from each word – ‘c’ or ‘w’ or ‘sh’ followed by ‘o’ and ‘u’ and ‘l’ and ‘d’.
With the word A G AI N you should teach, as we are lazy the AI represents the sound ‘e’. It should actually be the sound of ‘a-e’ as in R AI N – this will help with spelling.
All the so called Sight words/High frequency words should be taught phonetically!
Teach the WHOLE CODE – all the alternative Sounds/Phonemes to the Grapheme and all the Graphemes for the Phoneme/Sound!

Teaching by rote using letter names or the shape of the word DOES NOT use the part of the brain dedicated to reading.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Such great points, Heather!

All About Spelling approaches these words a bit differently. It has students note the phonograms that do not say what we expect them to say by circling and coloring in yellow. So on the Word Card “again”, the student and teacher would discuss it together and the student would circle the AI phonogram and color the circle yellow. This reinforces to students that the majority of the word is decodable. The entire word does not need to be memorized, but rather the student only needs to remember this one phonogram.

All About Spelling focuses on the phonograms and their sounds that are used to spell 97% of English words. The very small percentage that are in common usage but have uncommon spellings or sounds, All About Spelling teaches as rule-breakers. Our How to Handle Spelling Rule Breakers blog post discusses how these are approached in a lesson.

Sandra Y McKinnon

says:

This is a very informative article that has answered so many questions I have about sight words.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Sandra. I’m glad to hear it is helpful for you.

Deborah

says:

This is excellent information and I will be sharing your website with my clients!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you for sharing our website, Deborah!

Esha Panjikar

says:

Thank you so much for making it so much easier to learn sight words. Great work.

Barb Welmers

says:

My son (1st Grade) is doinf very well with reading. He has this autimaticity and surprises me everyday, however in Math he can’t memorize math facts or even remember the number he is counting to frequently. What do you think about this?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Barb,
It is not uncommon for students to do very well in one subject and not well in another one. Just as there are dyslexia and other learning disabilities that affect learning to read, there are learning disabilities that affect learning mathematics. The most common is dyscalculia.

However, the things that can help memory in learning tend to be similar regardless of the subject, so you may find our free Memory Report helpful for your son for math.

Donna Ora

says:

We’re on Pre-reading and about to start Level 1, so this was helpful as I was wondering how high frequency words were taught in this program. Thanks so much! I always enjoy these posts.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Donna! I’m pleased to hear this was helpful for you. If you ever have questions like this or about anything else, just ask!

Angela Hough

says:

Thanks for the ideas.

Anna Horgan

says:

This is great thanks

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.

Leave a Comment