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.

Teaching Beginning Reading to Young Children

Toddler laying on a bed reading a book with mother sitting nearby.

What is the Research on Teaching Beginning Reading?

Over the last 50 years, teaching beginning reading to young children has been the subject of much research and considerable controversy (i.e., “The Reading Wars”).

In the late 1990’s Congress convened the National Reading Panel and tasked them with identifying the most conclusive on reading instruction. The panel, made up of some of the top reading , evaluated a multitude of research and published their findings in the National Reading Panel Report in April, 2000.

The report cited 5 critical areas of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension and summarized effective teaching practices for each critical area of instruction.

Despite the passage of 22 years, little has changed in what researchers know about effective practices in teaching beginning reading. The National Reading Panel Report still contains the best practices for teaching beginning reading in the classroom.

 In 2019, the Deans for Impact organization reviewed the research data on beginning reading to learn more about how young children develop agency, numeracy, and literacy. 

This guide summarizes the most recent scientific knowledge about how children develop, learn to read and write proficiently and develop math skills. Here is a summary of what has been learned about the best instructional practices for teaching beginning reading.

Learning Alphabetic Principles

Children need to learn both letters and sounds in the English language to understand letter-sound relationships.

Letter sound relationships form the foundational understanding needed for fluent reading. Students need explicit instruction in letter-sound relationships to learn the sounds that letters and combinations of letters represent.  

Phonemic awareness skills help students understand how spoken sounds connect to letter symbols.

Children also need to understand the connection between spelling patterns and word pronunciations. This connection helps them decode printed words into words or word parts they already know through segmenting and blending.

Young female reading an Oxford Dictionary to learn new words.
Learning New Words Builds Stronger Understanding

Teaching Beginning Readers to Become Fluent Readers

Understanding phonics is a foundational skill for beginning readers and helps them become stronger readers. Phonics helps students understand how to decode new words.

By learning graphemes, students recognize patterns and can sound out, recognize and write more words. Phonics skills must be explicitly taught so that students can become fluent readers.

Reading with fluency requires automaticity. This means that students must be able to recognize word parts and words quickly and automatically as they read.

Beginning readers need to decode words quickly and efficiently. If children devote too much cognitive energy to decoding the words on the page, comprehension lapses.

This takes practice and training in segmenting and blending the graphemes of words.

Teaching Beginning Reading by Modeling with Read Alouds

Teachers can model fluent reading through daily read alouds. This helps children hear what proficient reading sounds like. It also gives children a feel for the “lilt” of the English language.

While reading aloud, teachers stop to call attention to essential elements in the passage. These elements include new vocabulary, punctuation markers, and unfamiliar word types in the passage.

Teachers might also ask students to summarize what as been read or answer a few higher level questions such as “Do you agree or disagree with Kat’s idea and why?”

Follow-up Activities for Teaching Beginning Reading

Re-reading is also a powerful follow-up activity to strengthen beginning reading. After listening to the teacher, students practice reading the same passage several times aloud.

Each time the passage is read, the student’s goal is to improve their performance. The teacher provides guidance and feedback to strengthen student reading success.

Explicit instruction on morphology (word parts) and word families build vocabulary and move beginning readers toward more automatic word reading and fluency.

As with any skill, practice – along with with guidance and feedback – improves the teaching of beginning reading. Give students access to books and reading materials as much as possible at school and at home.

Supporting a child’s intrinsic motivation by giving them fun and interesting materials is more likely to result in reading improvements than are extrinsic rewards or incentives.

The more children want to read and view reading as enjoyable, the quicker their reading skills will grow and develop as competent beginning readers.

Post Updated 10/01/2022

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Phases of Early Literacy Development for K-3 Students

We know from research that children begin their development with language as early as when they are developing in the womb. These language skills form the foundation of their ability to become oral communicators as well as good readers and writers. Children form their understandings about language, reading and writing from their home and environmental experiences with language and with the print they experience around them on a day to day basis. Click on the links below to see the characteristics of each stage of literacy development. You will find many great activities to do with children in each stage of literacy development in my book: Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development.

1. Exploratory Stage

2. Experimental Stage

3. Early Literacy Stage

4. Transitional Literacy Stage

5. Independent/Productive Reading Stage