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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!

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

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Diane

says:

What about learning these words for writing. I used to teach students to spell these words using letter names rather than sounds.

Robin

says: Customer Service

Good question, Diane. We discuss how to teach such words in our How to Handle Spelling Rule Breakers article.

Sharon Hummer

says:

I’m looking to start my 3rd grader on level 2 as he is a little bit of a struggling reader… would all about spelling level 2 correspond with that?

Robin

says: Customer Service

Good question, Sharon.

Use our Spelling Placement Test to determine which level of All About Spelling your students needs. Most students are working in All About Spelling Level 1 while working in All About Reading Level 2, but occasionally one can skip Level 1 and start with All About Spelling Level 2. The placement test will let you know if your student needs Level 1 or can skip it.

Let me know if you have additional questions or need anything. I’m happy to help!

Jackie

says:

As a former Reading Teacher, I totally agree! I’m looking at All About Reading for my daughter who will begin kdg homeschool in September.

Robin

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Jackie!

Let me know if you have questions All About Reading or anything else. I’m happy to help!

F Nanashima

says:

I jumped into All About Spelling Level 1 with my rising first grader, but honestly, I’m struggling. In the week between my ordering the books and their arrival, she went from reading Frog and Toad to reading Roald Dahl, still occasionally asking me for help with words, but figuring out nearly everything from context. This kid is going to be reading grownup books before her sixth birthday. But she still can’t spell. Spelling lessons turn into scenes of frustration because she can read so very well, but cannot reproduce words accurately on paper, even easy ones like lump, lamp, clump, clamp. She tries vowels at random, or leaves out a consonant, gets it wrong, and starts crying. How can I help her move her large and growing vocabulary of sight words from her “read-only” memory into her “writing” memory?

Robin

says: Customer Service

What you are describing it not uncommon. The skills necessary for reading and spelling are related, but they are not the same. Many children that are advanced readers struggle with spelling.

It will be best for both of you to consider her abilities in each subject area separately. Gifted children are almost always asynchronous in their development, meaning they are not equally advanced in all areas and may even be behind in some areas. Most 5 year old children are doing well to spell their own name and a few very, very simple words like map and tip. The words you listed like lump and clamp are actually not easy for most children for a long time. Hearing the consonant blends (the mp and cl) are very difficult, and if a child cannot hear each of those sounds, she cannot spell them.

I recommend starting All About Spelling Level 1 again from the beginning, going as slowly as she needs in each lesson to truly master the material. Does she know all the sounds of the letters of the alphabet? (O and Y each have four sounds, for example) Are you using the new Color Edition of All About Spelling Level 1? It has a whole lesson on learning to hear and choose the correct vowel for a word that will be helpful.

As you move through All About Spelling Level 1, keep the daily spelling time very short. We generally recommend 20 minutes a day, but since she has a history of frustration and crying with spelling, shorter will be better. A lot of progress can be made in just 10 minutes a day if you are consistent in those 10 minutes. And if she begins to get frustrated or upset during a lesson, back up to something that is easy for her and then end the lesson. If she is struggling to spell words and starts to tear up, help her spell the word (focusing on sounds as you pull down the letter tiles to show her) and then review some phonograms. That way you always end a lesson on something that she is successful with, and that will help increase good feelings about spelling time.

Move very slowly and carefully through the lessons, setting her up for success each time. Both the older black-and-white All About Spelling and the new Color Edition All About Spelling start with having students spell words with short A. When you start that lesson, let her know she will only be using the vowel A at first. Then spend three or four days on that lesson, working through all the Word Cards as well as all the More Words (and the activities if you are using the Color Edition). Ensure she is able to spell all those words confidently and without hesitation before moving on.

Then, as you move into the next lesson, let her know she will be spelling words with the short I for the Word Cards and More Words. But when you get to the Dictation Phrases, be sure to tell her that there will be some words with short I and some with short A, that she will need to listen to each word to know which vowel to use. Again, take as many days with this lesson as she needs to be successful and confident in spelling these words.

I suspect, in time, your daughter will take off in spelling and start moving more quickly, although she may always need explicit spelling instruction and may never just “get it” the way she did with reading. That’s fine!

Please reach out to me at any time if your daughter needs help with a specific concept or with spelling overall. I’m happy help as much as you need to help her be as successful in spelling as she is in reading! I’m available here on the blog, or by email at support@allaboutlearningpress.com.

Melanie Harb

says:

I am a principal with a homeschool co-op and we use AAR in our elementary support. I am always looking for opportunities to share with my parents.

Robin

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Melanie!

Kathrine

says:

I love learning new words…Automaticity…exactly!

Robin

says: Customer Service

Automaticity is a great word, Kathrine!

Chelsey

says:

Great article. This was Very helpful, Thank you.

Robin

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this was helpful for you, Chelsey! You’re welcome.

Chelsey

says:

Great article. Very helpful, Thank you.

Phyllis

says:

Thank you for this article. I am learning a lot through your website. How would you scaffold the reading and spelling program for English learners (gr. 3-5) who are not literate in their home languages?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Interesting question, Phyllis. I think you may find our Real Moms, Real Kids: English Language Learners blog post helpful.

trina

says:

Great info! Love how you showed that the big list is only really about 20 words…

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Glad you liked this post, Trina! Yes, seeing how few words are truly not decodable is often surprising.

Bambi

says:

This really answered my question about “sight words” ( those lists out there that you find) and how that approach is not used in your program. The following quote from your above comment……
.”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.”
I want my child to learn the skills to be able to sound out every word and so they can go on to be strong readers as they get older. To me, I dont understand how you can learn to read just by memorization. How do you troubleshoot so to speak while reading? I read an article one time about a girl who learned to read with sight words and some method along with that I do not recall and she struggled her entire life with reading.

I dont want my children to struggle that way. It sounds like your program may be right for us?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Bambi,
Yes, from what you described it does sound like All About Reading would be the right program for you. Let me know if you have questions, need help with placement, or anything else.

Cheryl

says:

Interesting article and I like the term ‘leap words’ to make the kids feel good about progressing ahead. I also like that you take the time to answer people’s comments.

I do wonder about the use of the word ‘practise’ as I have been working on this with my kids and getting them to understand when it is used as a verb / noun. For example-
-that students haven’t practiced yet. (practise is used as a verb)
-flashcards used to practice the Leap Words (practise is used as a verb)

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Cheryl,
The issue with practice used as a verb is that only the spelling “practice” is used for both verb meaning and noun meaning in the US. Since we are a US company, we use the American spelling.

If you are teaching British or Australian spelling (or another region that follows British spelling more closely than American) here are some tips:

From a reading standpoint, students don’t really need to understand the difference. They will be able to read practice and practise and understand what is meant. If they ask about the spelling difference, it can be briefly explained that the two words are homophones, words that sound alike but have different meanings.

It is only in spelling that this becomes tricky. If the students already understand parts of speech, you could simply tell them that practice is a noun and practise is a verb. A little memory trick could be that N is alphabetized before V, and C is alphabetized before S. So the N (noun) gets the C (practice) and the V (verb) gets the S (practise).

However, there could be a good chance that a child is ready to spell practice and practise but not yet sure of parts of speech. This will take more instruction and explaining, and maybe a good segue to start a unit on parts of speech. (I like Sentence Family. It is a fun, short parts-of-speech grammar program that uses a storyline and making drawings to learn the parts of speech and how they relate to each other.) But here is a clue: If the word follows “a” or “the” or if it is more than one, then it is practice (a practice, the practice, two practices). Otherwise, it is practise. (This, of course, is a generalization, but should help with the majority of uses.)

I hope this helps!

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.

Cathy Wooten

says:

I am teaching my grandchildren to read with All About Reading, and I really like it. However, when their mother was a child I used Wilson Learning, which is pretty similar but way more expensive. It seemed no matter what we tried, she could not master sight words. I had her tested for dyslexia and the educator who oversaw that had me try air writing. We basically wrote the words in the air making HUGE arm movements (stiff arm; shoulder has to move; eyes closed). We went from working on twenty sight words for two years to mastering sixty-five in about five months. There’s something in the brain that connects with the stiff arm movements. Who knew? Hope this helps someone.

Robin

says: Customer Service

Thank you for sharing this, Cathy! So helpful!

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.