Back to Basics: Sight Words

Welcome to our Back to Basics series! In this series we will be exploring some of the foundational methods, practices and terminology for teaching reading. This series is for those new to the field of literacy, beginning tutors or those who would just like a refresher. This week we are discussing sight words.

Sight words are a collection of words your learner memorizes and recognizes without sounding out the letters. This collection of words is stored in the learner’s visual memory. Sight words can include high frequency words such as and, like, and the that are seen so frequently in text that they are easily memorized. Having a strong collection of sight words helps to build fluency, which in turn helps with reading comprehension.

Sight words are traditionally considered those words in the English language that can’t be decoded or sounded out, but rather need to be memorized. Michelle Hinzman and Deborah K. Reed suggest the following tips for teaching sight words.

  • Introduce new sight words in isolation (i.e., the sight word by itself), but immediately follow this with repeated exposures to the same sight words in books and other text materials.
  • Do not introduce two sight words that are similar or easily confused at the same time. For instance, “will” and “well” should be introduced in separate lessons as should “on” and “no.”
  • Provide brief (i.e., less than 10 minutes per session) but frequent sight word instruction, especially for beginning and struggling readers.
  • Offer students numerous opportunities to practice and receive immediate, specific feedback. For example, if a learner reads the word “this” correctly, respond with positive feedback: “Yes! The word is this.” If a learner reads “this” incorrectly, respond with corrective feedback: “The word is this. Say the word this.”

Teaching sight words by strictly memorizing may not work well for every student. Many educators find teaching the majority of sight words in combination with phonics helps the learner understand the context of the word, even if the spelling is irregular. The method described in A New Model for Teaching High-Frequency Words can be easily adapted for adult learners.

Check out the video below for an example of teaching sight words. Also see the resources below for more activities and strategies.


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