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Teach “Sight Words” As You Would Other Words

By Nell K. Duke and Heidi Anne E. Mesmer
 | Jun 23, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-499580999_x300In many classrooms we visit, “sight words” receive a very different kind of instruction than other words, taught primarily as an exercise in visual memorization. In this post, we explain why sight words should be taught much as you would teach any other words.

First, a note about terminology: The term sight word means any word that can be read automatically (Ehri, 2005). Ultimately, any word can and should be a sight word, not just words from the Dolch or Fry lists, for example. For skilled readers, virtually all words have already become sight words. At this point, readers no longer need to engage in decoding (e.g., /c/-/a/-/t/ = /cat/); using an analogy (e.g., cat: like bat with a c); or using sentence context to figure out the words (Ehri, 2005)—they can now read them automatically, without conscious attention. In contrast, often people use the term sight words to mean high-frequency words, many of which do not follow typical English letter–sound relationships (e.g., said, some). They think that these high-frequency words must be learned by sight, without graphophonemic analysis, because of their irregularities. In the remainder of this post, we explain that this is not the case, and we use the term high-frequency words, meaning words that are very common in English, whether regularly or irregularly spelled.

Memorizing high-frequency words holistically is not the answer. The most powerful mechanism for eventually accessing words by sight is use of the graphophonemic structure, a process that amalgamates the word’s units into memory (Ehri, 1978). Here are five principles to keep in mind when teaching high-frequency words:

Principle One: Teach high-frequency words along with phonemic awareness, individual letter–sound relationships, and a concept of word (e.g., Flanagan, 2007). In our observation, a great deal of high-frequency word instruction occurs too early—before children have these important pieces in place. For example, some children do not even have a concept of word or understanding of the word boundaries in print and how these map to letters, and yet they are memorizing letter sequences in “sight words.” Similarly, before they even understand the alphabetic principle they are chanting words.  Without a concept of word or alphabetic insight, children will have the mistaken impression that words are unsystematic, and learning will be inefficient in any case. High-frequency word instruction should occur on basically the same pace as instruction in word decoding in general.

Principle Two: Ask students to use graphophonemic analysis to read high-frequency words (Ehri, 2005). But be sure that instruction intersects with children’s developmental stage (e.g., Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2012). For example, when working with an emergent reader who is solidifying consonant sounds, focus them on the /t/ in to. When working with a full alphabetic reader, teach that in the word and, the a says /ă/, the n says /n/, and the d says /d/. Do this even for words that are not spelled using common letter–sound correspondences. For example, for the word was, we teach that w says /w/, a says /ŭ/, and the s says /z/. This kind of instruction builds a phonological representation of the word, which supports learning of the word.

Principle Three: Teach high-frequency words in groups that have similar patterns. For example, instead of teaching the word some as a rule breaker, explain that it is like come, above, and love.

Principle Four: Use high-frequency words to help children learn to decode new words. In one study, children were taught high-frequency words, such as long, can, and her, either with relatively little attention to the letter–sound relationships within them or with extensive analysis of their letter–sound relationships (Ehri, Satlow, & Gaskins, 2009). Children taught the words with full graphophonemic analysis were better able earlier on to analogize from those words to new words—for example to say, “If I know long, then I know strong.’’

Principle Five: Practice reading high-frequency words in sentences and books. Although we want children to analyze words individually, they also must read them within the context of sentences and books. It is critical that young children understand that reading high-frequency words enables them to unlock meaning within texts of interest to them.

In sum, we recommend you approach the teaching of high-frequency words, or what you might have been referring to as “sight words,” much as you approach the teaching of other words. Such continuity in instructional approach would be out of “sight”!

Nell K. Duke is a professor of Literacy, Language, and Culture at the University of Michigan, a member of the ILA Literacy Research Panel, and the author of Inside Information: Developing Powerful Readers and Writers of Informational Text Through Project-Based Instruction. Heidi Anne E. Mesmer is an associate professor of Literacy at Virginia Tech and a member of the ILA Literacy Research Panel. Her research focuses on text and beginning reading instruction.

The ILA Literacy Research Panel uses this blog to connect ILA members around the world with research relevant to policy and practice. Reader response is welcomed via e-mail.




Bear, D.R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2012). Words their way​ (5th​ ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Ehri, L.C. (1978). Beginning reading from a psycholinguistic perspective: Amalgamation of word identities. In F.B. Murray, (Ed.), The development of the reading process (International Reading Association Monograph No. 3). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Ehri, L.C. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory, findings, and issues. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9(2), 167–188.

Ehri, L.C., Satlow, E., & Gaskins, I. (2009). Grapho-phonemic enrichment
strengthens keyword analogy instruction for struggling young readers. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 25(2–3), 162–191.

Flanigan, K. (2007). A concept of word in text: A pivotal event in early reading acquisition. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(1), 37–70.

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