Love at first “sight”: Teaching high-frequency sight words

English is a word lovers dream! Linguists believe English has the largest vocabulary of the 6,000 languages on Earth. On June 10, 2009 the Global Language Monitor noted that English language passed the million word threshold (the millionth word was Web 2.0 according to the group). While linguists say it’s impossible to know the exact number, the Merriam-Webster Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged contains some 470,000 entries so whatever the number, it’s a lot of words.

While English has lots and lots of words, a small number of these words take up a huge amount of space in our spoken and written English. You know these words: the, a, he, she, it, of, in with, up, all, there, am, little, from, away, walk, tell, soon, fast, slow, good. These are sight words or high-frequency sight words, so called because they are, indeed, found in great frequency in spoken and written English. Depending on how you count them, sight words account for as much as 75% of of the words used in text used by children learning to read and about 50% of the words we read and use in written and spoken English.

Sight words are important in learning to read because when a reader knows all or most sight words, they can concentrate their time and effort on the few words that they don’t know when they read. Learning these words by sight helps, too, because many of these words have irregular spelling patterns are aren’t decodable. Here are a few examples of sight words with irregular spellings: they, eight, of, the, was. 

Tutors need to help young, emergent and struggling readers master sight words they haven’t yet learned. Many of the strategies for teaching sight words focus on memorization. That’s because many sight words do not have decodable spelling patterns. However, literacy scholars Nell Duke and Heidi Anne Mesmer writing for the International Reading Association (see their excellent post) argue that focusing solely on rote memorization is not an effective way to teach sight words. They suggest teaching the word units (letters and sounds) as you teach the sight words. Other research points to teaching sight words using a multi sensory approach–that is, seeing, hearing and tactile (touching) the words.

Here are some strategies for teaching sight words tutors can to help children with learning sight words:

See & Say: Tutors create flash cards by writing sight words on index cards or similar slips of paper. Teach a few words at a time–you can use a child’s age as an index so about six words at a time for a six year old. Add a few words each week and go over them for a few minutes each time you and the child work together. Over time you can sort the sight word cards into to categories: “Words I Know” and “Words I’m Working On”. Get a clasp envelope or ziplock bag for each group and write “Words I Know” and “Words I’m Working On” on the front. The “Words I Know” bag will grow over time which helps give a sense of accomplishment. Focus on teaching the “Words I’m Working On” words but occasionally review the “Words I Know”. Remember to also spend time on the word units–the letters and sounds–for words that are decodable. You can spread out several cards and have the child do word sorts of words that have the same initial consonant sound or middle vowel sound, for example.

Draw It Out: This is a multi sensory approach to teaching sight words. You can use the sight word cards described above or just call out words you are working on. Have the child (learner) air write the words using their finger as they say the word. You can also get shaving cream and have the child write them out in the shaving cream on a clean surface like a table or desk top. When introducing new sight words, the tutor might have the learner look at the word first then draw it out but as time goes on they can do it without looking at the word before they spell it out.

Sight Word Bingo or Wordo: Tutors can create Bingo or Wordo cards in a word processor (or download a template from the RWS tutoring website) like the one pictured below. The tutor can call out the words and the learner/student can put a coin or token on the space with that word. If two or more learners are playing, each child can take a turn calling out a word. You can play until a row or column is filled or all the squares. There is a variation of the game called Read it, Roll it, Write it (also pictured below) in which the learner rolls a die, reads a word form that column, and then writes out the word for practice. Like Wordo, you continue until  column, row or the entire board is filled.

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Sight Word Swat: This is a fun game that helps build speed in identifying sight words. Write out sight words on index cards or slips of paper and lay them out face up so the words show. The tutor calls out a word and the learner swats that word with a hand or fly swatter as quickly as they can.

Tips on Teaching Sight Words

Reading is a process of many parts–understanding words and word parts, reading those words fluently, making sense of what you are reading (comprehension)–so we can’t focus on just one aspect when tutoring. However, sight words are something that tutors should weave into their sessions regularly with a few minutes of instruction each time you work with a learner struggling with sight words. Practice sight words with flash cards, play Wordo or draw them out but also look for sight words in the text the learner is reading. Tutors should also have learners look at the elements that go into sight words–the letters and sounds. Look for patterns by having the learner identify and group sight words that have the same beginning sound or middle sound.

Learning sight words can pay big dividends in reading. Do the math! If approximately 50% of text are made using these high frequency words, that leaves a reader more time and mental capacity to focus on new and more challenging words.

Additional Resources

Here are some links to additional resources for teaching sight words. You can search for other ideas on the Internet or on Pinterest.


About bluegrassjb

I am an academic with a love for language, literacy and learning. The focus of my work is on student success at the K-12 and college levels. Outside of my professional interests I enjoy travel, photography and antiquing with my partner and wife. We like to hit the road in our travel trailer with the dogs and when at home party with the cats.
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