Should Students Learn Sight Words?

I often get asked by teachers whether beginning readers need to learn sight words to become good readers.

The Purpose of School is to Learn to Read

After two days of kindergarten, my young daughter arrived home from school in a huff.  “Mom!” she announced, throwing her new backpack on the floor and crossing her arms. “Just when is my teacher going to teach us to read?”

My answer was “Well, learning to read is going to take some time but your teacher will help you learn to read. You just have to give it some time.”

She gave me a frown and stomped off to her bedroom to put on her play clothes – school fading from her mind. Clearly, my response that learning to read would take some time wasn’t the answer she wanted.

Like many young children who love being read to, in my daughter’s mind the purpose of going to school was be able to read her own books.  Since my husband and I had told her that an important purpose of school was to learn to read, she

Unfortunately, many children have not had enough experience with books during their preschool years to connect learning to read with going to school.

What is Needed to Learn to Read?

To learn to read, primary children have several foundational skills they need.

The first is to identify the names of the letters of the alphabet and at least one key sound that each letter makes. One of the first skills a beginning reader needs the understanding that letters are symbols that represent specific sounds in language.

After children can identify and link letters and their primary sounds,  beginning readers need to understand that groups of letters create a word that has meaning.

For example, some children know how to write their own names before coming to kindergarten. Others lack any sense of letter-sound relationships. Since this is a foundational understanding, you need to help these youngsters develop this important concept.

Children also learn these important concepts through explicit and direct instruction in phonemic awareness activities. Until children connect the relationship between letters and sounds, learning to read will be more difficult.

As children learn that letters form words, they connect with the idea that words are “talk” written down. Children need to connect the “word” they see to concepts and ideas that they can already express verbally.

What are Sight Words?

There is confusion about exactly what educators mean when they talk about sight words. Sometimes they are referring to “high-frequency words.”  These are words that are commonly found in everyday language and texts.

Edward Dolch and Edward Fry both identified “high frequency” word lists for educator use. Their lists include the most common words that elementary students see in grade-level texts. Many teachers use these lists with their students to introduce and help students identify these high-frequency words.

Other educators are referring to words that are not easily decodable. They say that these words must be memorized as “sight words” since they do not follow regular phonics rules. The words “said” and “some” are irregular words.

Some teachers argue that irregular words must be memorized and learned as sight words.

Young boy with a book sitting on a bench.
Learning that Books Can Be Delightful is Important to Beginning Readers

Why is it Important to Identify and Learn Sight Words?

Learning to decode words and connect them with meaning is a cognitively demanding process for beginning readers.

When children first learn to read, they are focused on decoding the text. This leaves them little cognitive energy left to make meaning out of the words mean.

According to Kuhn and Stahl (2003), fluency happens when readers parse sentences quickly enough so the brain understands the meaning.

Even fluent adult readers drop back to their decoding skills when they come across an unfamiliar word while reading.

As beginning readers, children need to develop both decoding and fluency skills. For this reason, building a bank of sight words helps.

According to Ehri (2005), visual memorization of words in isolation is not as effective. He recommends repeatedly seeing important words in context or paired with important concepts.

Ehri says that virtually all words commonly read have become sight words for proficient, adult readers. It is our instant word recognition that gives us meaning from the text we are reading.

As children develop strong decoding skills, it is also important that they interact with common sight words regularly.

As children recognize more sight words, their fluency improves. This helps them save more of their cognitive energy for meaning making and enjoying what they are reading.

Learning Sight Words Through Multiple Exposures

You can help students understand the concept of a “word” by using labels in the classroom and helping children see words over and over again in the classroom and playing with them in fun and engaging ways.

Have students watch you write down the words for stories they dictate. You can also post word cards with corresponding pictures around the room for children to see over and over again. You can call attention to these words and their meanings regularly.

Children should apply phonics skills to decoding. Point out the familiar patterns in words they see. Help children identify “C-A-T” by using onset and rime patterns. Help them also identify words such as: sat, mat, pat, and hat.

Use a pointer to read the words on a big book read aloud. Have students use word finger-pointing as they follow along as you read.

Provide students with manipulative tiles and ask them to physically replace letters to create new words they also understand. When children can identify important rime patterns, they are learning to improve their decoding skills.

Learn more about how to help students identify letters in the early grades in this post.

Learn some simple Dolch sight word games to help students learn sight words.