Learning ‘Sight Words’

posted in: Reading | 2

Firstly and most importantly, there is no such thing as a sight word.  The term ‘sight words’ is frequently confused with ‘high frequency words’.   High frequency words are the words which most commonly occur in print (e.g, was, here, they).  A sight word is one that can be rapidly and automatically recognised and the reality is that reading competency is directly correlated with the number of words you can automatically and rapidly recognise.

It is commonly believed that sight words cannot be decoded (i.e., they can not be sounded out).  However, every word is decodable.  It is just that children may not have the particular phonic knowledge needed in order to sound out a particular word at that point in time.  In addition, a large majority of the high frequency words can be sounded out with a fairly basic phonic knowledge.  Just have a quick look at the 30 most frequently used words (the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, I, it, for, not, on, with, he, as, you, do, at, this, but, his, by, from, they, we, say, her, she, or).

In many classrooms, beginner readers are given a list of these high frequency words and parents are instructed to drill their child on these words in order to achieve automaticity.  This means that children are relying solely on the visual appearance of the word, which is the most basic level of literacy acquisition (see Frith’s literacy acquisition model).  As Yoncheva, Wise & McCandliss’s (2015) research demonstrates, when this is the methodology used to teach reading, students learn to read only those words.  In contrast, when students are taught how to decode the words, this knowledge can be applied to other words using similar phonic combinations that the child has never seen before.

In addition, children given these lists of words are rarely systematically exposed to these words in context.  Yet, Flanigan’s (2007) research shows that until children have a firm concept of words in text, they will be unlikely to remember the words in isolation.

Yes, as a part of the learn to read process, it is important that children can automatically and rapidly recall a large number of words and in particular the most frequently occurring words.  However, for this to occur effectively requires multiple exposure to the words in context and in word study activities (including systematic and explicit instruction in phonics and phonological awareness) as well as in isolation (Johnston, Invernizzi, Helman, Bear, & Templeton, 2015).

So, what do you do if your child’s teacher sends home a list of ‘sight words’?

1.       Cut up light weight card into 15cm x 6cm pieces.  Take the first 10 words and write one word on each card.  Take another 10 cards and write the same words again so that you have two of each card.  Now you can use the cards to play games like fish and concentration as well as helping your child make up sentences to read using the words.  Click here for some more strategies.  Once your child can automatically recall a particular word, take out the two cards with that word and replace with the next word on the list.

2.      Find some picture books. Go through the book and highlight all the words that your child is currently learning to read.  As you read through the book together, when you get to a word your child is currently learning or has previously learned, you can stop and see if your child can automatically recall the word.  Alternatively, use a reading series such as the Cracking the ABC Code Learn to Read series which systematically uses these high frequency words.

3.      Take two words each night and help your child learn to spell the word by first breaking the word into the individual sounds and then working out which letters or letter combinations are representing those sounds.  See the Cracking the ABC Code Spelling Video for ideas.


Flanigan, K. (2007). A Concept of Word in Text: A Pivotal Event in Early Reading Acquisition. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(1), 37-70.

Johnston, F., Invernizzi, M., Helman, L., Bear, D.R., & Templeton, S. (2015). Words Their Way for Prek-K. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Yoncheva, Y., Wise, J.,  & McCandliss, B. (2015). Hemispheric specialization for visual words is shaped by attention to sublexical units during initial learning, Brain and Language, 145–146 (23-33).

2 Responses

  1. Andrea Deithe

    That is a fantastic article and one I would like to share with parents from my old school I taught at where ‘sight words’ and reading levels are the be all.
    Is there a way that I can put this on to my Facebook page to share with the Cracking the ABC code referenced at the top?
    Thank you

    • Lillian

      Hi Andrea,

      Thank you for the feedback. You should be able to copy the URL from the top of the page and paste it onto your Facebook page.