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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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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.

Madeleine Ruga

says:

Thank you so much for all the resources and advice you’re giving. I’ve been able to access the links without any problems. As I am not a teacher by profession but love to homeschool little ones, can you assist me with a teaching plan, the proper way to start a phonics program i.e. which letter is the best one to start the program with etc. Thanks again and regards, Madeleine

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Madeleine,
Sure! I think you will find our How to Teach the Alphabet to Preschoolers. It has tons of printables and activities.

Our Pre-reading program teaches letters in alphabetical order to take advantage of the ABC song. However, in All About Reading level 1, we start with letters M, S, P, and A. Once children know them and their most common sounds, they can sound out words like map, sap, am, Sam, Pam, and others.

I hope this helps, but please let me know if you need anything else.

Erin

says:

Great article! Even with explicit phonics instruction, my little one still tries to guess at words sometimes, but I encourage her to go back and decode them.

Nick Haas

says:

The reason we’re devoid of studies backing use of sight words is because it’s devoid of Merit. Last year I took ten of my 32 sixth grade science students, all ten illiterate, and taught them to read during my preps and at my house on Saturdays. We have failed these kids.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Oh, wow, Nick! How sad that children could be passed along until 6th grade without learning to read, and if you hadn’t been willing to give of your own time they would have continued to be passed along. Thank you for what you do for these kids!

Joan Cotter

says:

Montessorians call these “puzzle words.” I taught these words by having the child sound it out and then give them the correct pronunciation. For example, if the puzzle word is “one,” they’d say “own.” I’d then tell them we say it as “won.” The next time they heard themselves say “own,” they self-corrected to “won.”

Timothy Atutahi

says:

If we have to teach it as won and not one is it not sight word and if it has a silent letter is it not a sight word both needing to be remembered in some form

Elaine

says:

Thank you so much for this post.

Marcus Chambers

says:

My son absolutely loved the games while learning his sight words.

Krista Ross

says:

My mother taught first grade for 30 years and taught me and three siblings to read when we were 4 and 5 years old. She used phonics only. I am an elementary school homework helper volunteer and have observed that sight reading is not working for most children. They “read” a word like clown and the next time they see a word that starts with cl, they “read” clown when the word is class. There is a lot of guessing going on, which leads to frustration for the students. I just do not see how sight reading is an effective learning technique.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Krista,
Yes, encouraging children to memorize how words look almost always leads to developing a word guessing habit. In fact, many classrooms teach children to guess at words as a reading strategy. It is frustrating.

It is slower for a child to be able to read books when he is taught to sound words out as it takes time for a student to move from sounding words out to being able to read them on fluently. But when students learn to read by sounding words out, they have the skills to read a word they have never read it before.

Thank you for the work you do with children. I’m sorry to hear of their frustration. Poor kids.

Marianda Matsouka

says:

How would you explain the different sound of U in under and uniform?

Thanks

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Marianda,
You can hear the differences between the two sounds on our free Phonogram Sounds app (which also works from a computer browser). When you click on the U phonogram, you will hear three sounds. The first sound is the short sound and is the sound U makes in the word under. The second sound is the long sound and is the sound that U makes in the word uniform. Why U makes one sound at the beginning of one of these words and a different one at the beginning of the other is because in under the U is in a closed syllable and in uniform is it in an open syllable. Our blog post on How to Teach Open and Closed Syllables explains what makes a syllable closed or open.

I hope this helps but please let me know if you would like more information.

Nikki Thorpe

says:

Where do Leap words fit into AAS spelling program? Do I.need to.be working on having my.child spell Leap words on the side? I am worried they cant spell these words.

Madie Hernández

says:

Loved your post !! Thank you!! Is learning sight words consider developmental? I have a friend that considers a child should be able to blend in order to read them. I think is memorization can you please explain? Thank you!!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Madie,
Learning sight words really isn’t developmental; some kids can do it easily and some not regardless of age or development.

The problem is that teaching lots of “sight words” that actually could be sounded out can confuse many students. It can cause students to begin to think that our language doesn’t have dependable patterns, and some will give up and try to just guess at words. Words like house and horse look almost identical. They both begin with ho and end with se, they are the same shape if you draw an outline around the word, they are the same length. A child who only knows how to read by sight will confuse words like this.

To be able to read fluently and smoothly, students have to be able to recognize thousands of words. It is very difficult to memorize that many. However, once readers have learned to sound words out so quickly and easily that it is second nature, knowing thousands of words is easy. By the way, this is what is going on with fluent adult readers. We don’t memorize all those words, we just read them so quickly that it looks like memorization. That is how we can read nonsense words like “yant” or “barth” easily even though we have never seen them before.

All About Reading does not encourage students to memorize words by sight. Rather, we want our students to be able to sound words out as often as is necessary for them to be able to do it so quickly that it looks like memorization.

Does this answer your question? Please let me know if you would like more information or have more questions.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Nikki,
All About Spelling teaches “rule breakers”, words that have one or more letters that don’t say sounds we expect them to say. All About Spelling 1 doesn’t cover any rule breakers because level 1 is focused on getting students to pay attention to each sound in words for spelling. We don’t want them to start memorizing words at that point. However, in AAS 2 and above rule breakers are taught explicitly, reviewed, and practiced. You don’t need to be having your child spell any Leap Words on the side. They will be taught.

Check out our blog post How to Handle Spelling Rule Breakers. It discusses how All About Spelling teaches these tricky words. Just keep in mind that AAS covers all of these words in time, so you can wait until they are introduced in AAS before throwing the words in jail.

I hope this helps. Please let me know if you have further questions or need more information.

Marika

says:

Hi, I love your program my girls have excel in their decoding of words with you superb AAS product. I have a question about decoding. ” With knowledge of sight words can you be able to decode other words? I was told this by a teacher and I do believe so, can you help me? Edited copy

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Marika,
I’m not exactly sure what you are asking but I will attempt to answer.

Children can learn sight words and decoding together, but many find that too much focus on sight words encourages children to guess at other words and not attempt to decode them. Word guessing often leads to poor comprehension because the child guesses wrong and the word then doesn’t make sense. Also, when children apply sounds from sight words to words they are trying to decode, they can make mistakes. For example, when children are taught what and was very early in their reading before they are comfortable with the sounds of A, they may assume that it is normal for A to say the /uh/ sound. Then they try to sound out a word like band and read it as bund. I’ve seen this happen.

Does this answer your concern? Please let me know.

Lauren Sw

says:

I love that this program focuses more on phonetic learning & decoding than sight word memorization. Having the phonetic memory & decoding skills allows for a broader vocabulary at a quicker rate I think.

great refresher ideas for me

kelly

says:

very informative

Lynn

says:

Great suggestions. Thanks.

Quinn

says:

Thank you, this was so helpful. Excited to implement some of these tools this year at home.

Hanita

says:

Very interesting information. I’m looking into a reading program that really help the kids.

Carol

says:

This was a very interesting article. Thank you. I also have a hearing problem so can understand how a child must feel.

Carmen

says:

Thank you for the information

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