Research-Based Tips to Help Kids Learn Sight Words

by Lindsay Barrett

Photo credit: fatcamera, E+ Collection/Getty Images

Do you have a new reader in your life? If so, you likely know that building up a bank of sight words is a vital piece of the reading puzzle. Readers store sight words in their brains as whole words — that is, they know them by “sight.” This frees up the reading brain to focus on comprehension, which is the ultimate goal. Sight words also help growing readers move through a text by serving as familiar landmarks. So, how do we help kids learn sight words? Research suggests that a strategic approach goes a long way.

What are sight words, anyway?
Any word that a reader recognizes automatically can be a sight word; a sight word for one reader may not be one for another. (The first sight word many kids learn is their name!) By the time we’re proficient adult readers, almost all words are sight words.

High-frequency words — words that appear often in our written language like the, and, to, you, was, etc. — are instrumental sight words. Open up a beginning reading book and count how many of the words can be found on the first Fry Sight Word List, which includes the 100 most common words in written English. It could easily be half the words in the book! Focusing on the most common high-frequency words can make a huge difference when teaching kids sight words.

More than memorization
A common misconception is that kids have to memorize sight words because they can’t be “sounded out.” However, emphasizing how a word’s letters map onto its sounds can help kids learn it faster and retain it better. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
• Many high-frequency words are phonetically regular. Words like can, in, that, and which all have a consonant, short vowel, and digraph (th, wh, ch) sound spellings that kids learn in kindergarten and first grade. Kids can decode these words just like they do with cat, sat, and rat.
• If a word has a phonetic pattern that children haven’t learned yet, point out how the letters represent each sound in the word. For instance, if a child hasn’t learned r-controlled vowels (ar, ir, er, or, ur), you can teach for by saying, “F makes the /f/ sound like it usually does. The letters o and r make the /or/ sound.”
• If a word has an irregular spelling, you can talk about the letters that make expected sounds vs. those that don’t. For instance, you can teach was by saying, “W makes its normal sound, but in this word, a says /uh/ and s says /z/.”

This method of learning new sight words can be a relief for kids. Feeling like you know the code (even if that code is wonky sometimes) is empowering!

Group related words
Connections help our brains organize and hang onto information, so tackling sight words in logical groups can be helpful. For instance, when you talk about how the letters “oul” unexpectedly make the middle sound in “could,” it makes sense to practice the same pattern in should and would.

It’s even beneficial to group words that look similar but sound different; learning does with goes is still helpful even though the “oe” makes different sounds.

Easy practice ideas
After honing in on the letters and sounds in words, it takes practice to reach that “sight word” status. These activities and routines will help:
• Post a “password” for kids to read every time they pass through a doorway.
• Have kids hunt for words in poems, written messages, or books. The books on this list are great to read aloud. Ask kids to chime in and read some of the high-frequency words.
• Give kids a stack of word cards and have them read each word and “type” it on an old keyboard or keyboard cover.
• Spread out word cards on the floor. Call out the words and have the kids find and slap them with a fly swatter or spatula.
• Write words with chalk on the ground and have kids jump on each letter as they read the sound, then bow as they say the whole word. (For do: “/d/” = jump “/oo/”= jump, “do”= take a bow!)