• Antoinette Barbosa

How To Teach Sight Words

Sight words, which are common terms that children are expected to recognize quickly, are critical to reading success because they appear frequently throughout a text. 50 to 70 percent of all ordinary texts are made up of sight words. While I was under the former belief that sight words had to be memorized and be stored in our visual memory to be able to read them, I now know that sight words need to be integrated into our phonics instruction. The science of reading tells us that sight words are not simply stored in our visual memory but rather learned through a set of cognitive skills.


Reading experts and cognitive scientists discovered a better way to help struggling readers by looking more closely at the science of reading. They discovered that reading is NOT like visual memory and that children need to be taught a different way rather than just memorizing terms.


Dr. David Kilpatrick, author and professor of psychology, explains the process to permanently store words for immediate retrieval in his book Equipped for Reading Success. The process he discusses is Orthographic Mapping, which shows us how to instantly turn an unfamiliar word into a sight word. Kilpatrick explains that three skills must be developed for children to become strong word mappers. These three skills include:


1. Automatic Letter-Sound Associations

2. Highly Proficient Phoneme Awareness

3. Word Study


Explicit instruction is needed to connect sounds, known as phonemes, to written words.


Sight words are intended to be read accurately, automatically, and effortlessly. A literate adult has between 30,000 to 70,000 sight words stored in their memory for quick retrieval. Once learned, sight words are recognized intuitively at first glance. 37 percent of the words on the 220 Dolch Sight Word List, a list of the most frequently used English words, are not decodable, meaning they cannot be sounded out. These words have irregular spelling patterns because they do not follow phonetic rules, including words such as was, said, and here. This makes these words particularly difficult to learn, especially for young children new to reading. An average child takes a minimum of 14 exposures to learn a new word and because of this, children need multiple opportunities to develop their reading and writing skills, while interacting with new words. Children who struggle with reading need much more exposure to review and practice processes. 63 percent of the words on the 220 Dolch Sight Word List are decodable because they follow phonetic rules, such words include did, them, at, and in. Sight words should be explicitly taught as heart words, which refers to a teaching practice associated with learning specific sight words. Children will encounter these words often as they continue to read, so they need to be recognized, read, and spelled with automaticity.


As a teacher, I have wasted an extensive amount of time and energy having my students memorize sight words through flashcard drills. It is with great relief that I have grown to understand that unknown words are not learned through visual memory, but rather through phonetic skill development. With this approach in mind, children will have more of an opportunity to focus on complex words and text comprehension once sight words are mastered.


I hope this post has offered insight into the world of reading skill development and instructional teaching! Follow along for more information about my teaching journey and what I have learned throughout my time working with children.

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