Our top 7 tips to remove the confusion around sight words Print

Sight words are a special high frequency category of words that students are instructed to recognise automatically. The term ‘sight word’ can mean several different things: high frequency words; phonetically irregular words; or familiar words that require no effort to recall (orthographic lexicon or sight vocabulary). When educators refer to sight words they are usually referring to high frequency words, some of which may be phonetically irregular.  When learning high frequency words, instant recognition is important due to the frequency at which these ‘sight words’ occur. While the end goal is that most words become automatic and firmly embedded in a child’s orthographic lexicon, how this ability is developed and how sight words are instructed are often a cause of confusion. 

How does combining phonics and sight word instruction benefit our beginning readers?

It is well established that students require simultaneous instruction of phonics and sight words. Both sets of skills have been shown to assist beginning readers develop a better understanding of the text. Research tells us that the process by which words become a part of the orthographic lexicon is through orthographic mapping which builds on the skills of phonemic segmentation (sounding out) and letter-sound knowledge. Automatic recognition of the words by ‘sight’ is the end product that is achieved through systematic and explicit teaching.

A complication with sight word instruction is that a proportion of the sight words do not follow regular phonic rules. Another complication is that those words that do conform to phonic principles demand phonic knowledge that the beginning reader may not have yet acquired. PLD’s unique approach allows children to learn more high frequency words with less effort by teaching the right words at the right time and in the right way.

For the beginning reader, this will facilitate greater success and reduced frustration.

Let’s get started on our top tips to remove the confusion around sight words. The following strategies can be applied to all sight words.

Tip #1: There is a need for better terminology and understanding

Firstly ‘sight words’ means so many things to different people. The term ‘sight words’ often provides a false impression that these commonly used words are to be learned by sight (or visual memorisation). Research does not support teaching these words as ‘visual whole units’ without paying attention to the phoneme-grapheme (sound to letter) correspondences. It is far more useful to view sight words as high frequency words that need to be explicitly taught so they are learned by sight. Automatic recognition of the words by ‘sight’ is the end product that is achieved through systematic and explicit teaching.


Tip # 2: Before introducing sight words, teach pre-literacy skills first

Too often sight words are taught too early, while students still have a very shaky grasp of the prerequisite skills. The International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction (2015) reminds us: ‘Children should never be asked to memorise lists of ‘sight words’ before they have received instruction in phonological and phonemic awareness, letter-sound correspondences and blending and segmenting, and have at least started to apply decoding skills to convert written symbols to spoken sounds.’ Continue reading more of the article here.

From this, we can start our young students that are transitioning to literacy, by teaching the prerequisite skills first so that they understand this and have the skills to process words. So, what are those skills?

It makes no sense to send home sight words before our students have developed those two important prerequisite skills.


Tip # 3: Teach from simple to progressively more complex

Introduce the short regular words initially, and work through to the more complex – seems simple right? In the early stages of learning to read, I do not recommend providing mixed lists of sight words. Unfortunately, I see this approach far too often. A mixed sight word approach typically causes stress as it is the more complicated approach to EARLY sight word learning.

An effective alternative is to group words so that rather than a random range of words, you are developing a word attack strategy that can be applied to a group of the high frequency words. There is such a large range of Sight Words out there, the choice of your list is up to you but what you need to do regardless of what sort of sight words you’re using is group them so that you’re giving your students a strategy to master that set of sight words.

  • Firstly, cluster the regular words that are decodable. (These you may choose to colour code as green.)
  • Second, I would cluster all of the words that you can still use a decoding principle but students will need to ‘stop and think’ because there is one element of irregularity. (These you may choose to colour code as orange.)
  • Thirdly you have words that require phonic knowledge. This set of words makes sense when digraphs and phonic concepts have been taught. Most words in this category are regular, but students require the phonic knowledge. (These you may choose to colour code as blue.)
  • Finally, the words which are highly irregular, a visual strategy will be required.

Tip # 4: Group similar high frequency words together

For example: do/to/who, be/he/me/she, how/now/down or with/this/then/them/than. This is where the boundary for teaching sight words or phonics becomes unclear because by focusing on these high frequency words, phonics is also being instructed.


Tip # 5: Integrate sight word teaching within a structured synthetic phonics (SSP) program.


Teach explicitly, systematically and within your SSP program. A recent DSF Bulletin article provides an overview of recommended evidence-based Structured Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programs and how sight words are integrated within the phonics teaching. Read the full article here. Remember teaching sight words (or HFW) is not separate from phonics instruction.


Tip #6: Move away from dated approaches to sight word teaching.

High frequency words need to be explicitly taught, while multisensory activities such as sand-paper and shaving cream are fun, they do not produce results for your students. 

The orthographic mapping theory of reading development explains that the words we can recognise automatically (i.e. by sight) are anchored in our long-term memory by connections between the pronunciation (phonological knowledge), our ability to identify phonemes within these words (phonemic awareness) and the letter sequence of words spelling (letter-sound correspondence). Therefore the most efficient way to teach these high frequency words (or any word) is to teach students to map letters to the sounds they hear in the word.


Tip # 7: The PLD approach to the explicit teaching of HFW’s or sight word teaching


PLD recommends teaching high frequency words through orthographic mapping. This is an auditory based process where words are presented verbally without showing the written word and students are taught to map letters onto the sounds they hear in the word. The research explains that this auditory based approach is likely superior to more traditional approaches which focus on presenting a word and requiring memorisation via a visual route. 

  1. Introduce the word orally
  2. Segment the word into phonemes verbally (NO letters) and emphasis each phoneme
  3. Build phonological framework of the word 
  4. Read and spell the word several times
  5. Elaborate if possible by discussing the meaning of the word or using in a sentence
  6. Include in a stack of flash cards for repeated reading and spelling practice.

Access our new sight word teaching and assessment downloads via these links:

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