Sight Words: Comprehensive Reading Instruction

emphaSIS 2020

Sight words are the most commonly used words in the English language. Accordingly, a majority of the words that we read in a text are considered sight words. For example, “I” , “you”, and “the” account for ten percent of all words in printed English. As such, students learning to read greatly benefit by being able to instantly recognize and accurately read these words in order to build fluency and comprehension.

In general, teaching sight words is less focused on rules and letter sound knowledge. However, when sight words are coupled together with phonics instruction, we build strong, confident and fluent readers. Additionally, sight words are not a substitute for teaching phonics. Rather, sight word instruction helps students master reading words that frequently occur in a text, so they don’t have to stop and sound out every single letter or word.

There are many strategies and techniques to facilitate effective sight word learning. When I teach sight words I don’t have students sound them out or use their knowledge of letter sounds, as many of the sight words do not have a letter-sound correspondence. For example, sounding out the word “the” for a child, “t/h/e” does not work. Beginning and struggling readers may not understand how to pronounce the “th” letter sounds. Moreover, the first two counting numbers in English are not able to be sounded out, “one o/n/e” and “two t/w/o”! To help, I always use a non-verbal cue of circling the sight word or referencing it on our word wall. To clarify, we sound out other words, like CVC words, but not sight words. CVC words are words that begin with a consonant (C), have a single letter vowel sound (V), and end with a consonant (C).

To help reinforce sight word memorization, students need repetition and practice reading the words in context to help create mastery. For this reason, I use sight word fluency exercises, which allow the students to see the word, trace the individual letters on a pre-printed sheet, build the word by cutting out individual letters and assembling them in the correct order, and reading the word multiple times. Currently, I have found the most effective way to use the sight word fluency exercises is to show the word, say the word, trace the word, build the word, and read the word in context in a sentence. The sentence reading is then followed up with an opportunity to write it out on lined paper.

Struggling readers may have a difficult time moving from reading individual words to reading full sentences. Sometimes, children are overwhelmed when they see a sentence with 6+ words, but it’s critical for them to make this transition if they are going to be successful readers. If a child can read one word, then two, then three and so forth, they become more confident readers of full sentences. To aid in building this confidence I use sight word pyramid sentences. Sight word pyramid sentences increase the number of words a student reads and use both targeted sight words and words that can be sounded out. Students can simultaneously practice sight words and phonics. This is also a great way of providing repeated exposure to sight words. This helps the transition to reading words in context, which in turn helps build comprehension.

Language and literacy learning happen in a variety of ways as children are exposed to spoken and written language. Learning sight words is part of the SIS Reading Curriculum and is useful for early readers. Given the need to recognize high frequency and irregular words automatically, sight word instruction is one component of a comprehensive literacy program for early readers. 


Article by Tim Smith, Teacher Primary School