Sight Word Instruction

Hi everyone! I'm officially on summer break, which means more time with my kids and (hopefully) more time to blog and create. I've been thinking a lot about fluency after going to an amazing presentation by a reading/dyslexia specialist, Barbara Steinberg. Here's the other piece: the kids I work with usually don't have it. For our struggling readers, this is a constant struggle. With my interventions, I feel like I get my students strong with their phonics and phonemic awareness skills, but fluency remains a challenge. One of my earlier mistakes when I taught first grade was not putting enough time into sight word instruction and practice. Don't make my mistake! Phonics is SUCH an important part of reading instruction, especially with your intervention kiddos, BUT so are sight words. Why? 

So even your average beginning reader needs to see that word several times in order to read it with automaticity. Our dyslexic readers need SEVERAL more exposures to those words. We need to provide them with those opportunities to practice these words.  However, by second grade on, your typically developing readers are able to store a new word permanently in only one to four exposures (Bowey & Miller, 2007). The exact number for dyslexic readers is not known, although I can tell from experience, it's a lot more than that and it varies from student to student. 

What do I mean by Sight Words?
Before I go any further,  let's dig into the term "sight word". This term is used interchangeably to mean a few things: high-frequency words, irregular words, and words that students recognize on sight. Technically the term sight words should really mean the words that a reader knows by sight (or instantly without decoding). For the purpose of this blog post, I'm using the term sight words to mean those high-frequency words that are most commonly used in texts. That includes both regular and irregular words. The title of this post is Sight Word Instruction, but what this post is really about it high frequency words that students need to master in order to improve their fluency with reading. They are the most common words seen in children's texts for early readers. I call them sight words because that's the term that's going to catch your attention. 

Side Note: I recently took a Structured Word Inquiry class (fascinating) that said, There is no such thing as an "irregular" word. Wait. What?! The reason why they say there is no such thing as a "sight word" is because every word has its history and it's reason for being spelled a certain way. I could go on and on, but instead I will lead you to another post written by someone far smarter and more experienced. ;) Click here to learn more.  I will write more about this in the future as I learn more!

In conclusion, for the sake of this post, we can call it a sight word because that's what we're all used to saying and we do, after all, want our kids to know these words "by sight." 

Some Facts about  Sight Words
Another thing we need to get out of the way is the idea that most "sight words" (high-frequency words) are irregular. I'm going to throw some facts your way. 
  • Many high-frequency words are phonetic.
  • The majority of irregular words actually only have one irregular letter-sound relationship. 
  • Even though these words are irregular, they are still stored in our long-term memory using the same orthographic mapping process as regular words. 
  • These irregular words have a history (etymology) and relatives that actually do explain about the spelling. 

How to Teach Sight Words: Where to begin?

This is nothing new but it's always worth saying. Students need to see it, say it, write it, feel it, and hear it. I learned a tip from a dyslexia specialist friend of mine, Tamera. It seems so simple, yet I was overlooking these basic steps. First, show the student the word on a flash card. SAY the LETTERS in the word as the student TRACES the letters on the flashcard. Repeat. Say the word again. Have the student write the letters in the air AND on the table, saying the letters as they trace, repeating the whole word when they are done. To spice it up, use sand and/or add glue to the flashcards to give it a bumpier feel. After seeing and tracing the word, guide your student to try to take a "snapshot" of this word in their brain: Look at the word, counting down from 5. Then close your eyes and try to see the word. This sounds so basic, so simple but it really helps and only takes a a few short minutes. 

Have your students write the words in sand, on white boards, and/or on the iPad.  Each time, underline a part of the word that either reminds them of a phonics rule OR that is tricky for them. For example, in the word out, I would underline the ou to remind them of that phonogram. In the word they, I would underline the e because it is the tricky part. In the word about, I would underline the a and put a box around the ou to show the a is making the schwa sound and the ou is a phonogram.

You don't have to go out and buy sand or play dough though! You can also just use your body. Tap your shoulder and say the first letter. Then move down your arm as you say the other sounds. I would group the letters in certain cases. For example, the word they would go like this: "t-h" (tap shoulder), "e" (say louder since it's an oddball and tap inside elbow), and "y" (tap wrist). This movement while saying the letters counts as being multi-sensory becuase you are using more than one modality.

This is another tip I got from my dyslexia specialist friend. She always points out the tricky part of the word. Sometimes I have the students identify what they think makes the word "tricky." Other times, I point it out. A lot of times the thing that makes the word difficult, actually has a reason why it is that way. In that case, I tell the students that rule. For example, the word give and have end in e. The rest is phonetic. Did you know an English word CANNOT end in v. True story. So that silent e has a purpose, just not one that they are used to. In the word, around and about, the a says /uh/ which makes it trickier. Well, that is also a phonic thing called Schwa. But back to my tip here. ;) 
Show your student the word with the highlighted "odd" letter(s). Talk about why those letters are tricky. Practice spelling the word as you did earlier (in the above tip.) This time enunciate the odd letter(s) vocally.  "W-h-A-t" You could enunciate it with a louder voice or with an accent or with a funny voice- anything to get that letter to stick!

You can find these cute sight words in my Tutoring Toolkit for Beginning Readers.

My son is in the process of learning his sight words. He is super motivated to read like his big brother but he also is motivated by these little animal cards. There are five different animals, each with several different colors. He started with elephant words (dolch pre-primer.) These words are split up into colors as well (about 10 words per color.) He started with red elephant cards, then moved on to purple elephant. Here is a little video I took of him after a few days of practice. It's exciting to see him getting it!  I know these are flashcards, but I want to clear that the flashing part of these flashcards is the review phase only. We study those words first, the letter/sound relationships and the oddball letters first! 

Say the word. Count the sounds. Draw dots or sound boxes to represent those sounds. Write the letters that go with those sounds. If there is a word that is irregular, write the irregular letter in another color and discuss. Ask your students the sound they hear. Then you tell them the letters that are used in that word to make that sound.  

A little background: How do our brains process and interact with letters? Orthographic mapping! Students map the phonemes (sounds) and words they already have in their phonological memory to the sequence of the letters they see on the page. Ortho means straight (think correct, in order, sequence) and graph means writing= Correct writing.  We form connections between the pronunciation of a word (with the individual phonemes) and the order of the printed letters. We are connecting sounds to sequence of letters. This connection is called "mapping".  Orthographic mapping allows our brains to permanently store words, so we can retrieve them automatically.  Here's a tidbit I just learned: We actually do not memorize sight words using our visual memory. We use vision for input but not for storage. (This is from David Kilpatrick's book: Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties.) Instead storage is orthographic, phonological and semantic. Mind blown, right? I plan on doing a more detailed blog post on this later! 

This one is obvious, I know! Remember how a dyslexic child needs to see a word 40+ times? That's a lot of exposures for that little one. My challenge is always, how do I do this without boring my kids to tears?! Show them the word over and over in different ways.

You can find these editable games in my  Systematic Sight Words pack.

You can find these sight word spins pictured above in my Systematic Sight Word Pack or you can find seasonally-themed sets in my  Seasonal Guided Reading packs (you can see the whole thing in these old posts herehere, and here).  These are always a hit with my students. Both of these packs have an editable version so you can put in whatever words you are working on.   

This is a picture from an old post. When I introduce a sight word, I would write a sentence on sentence strips with a blank in the middle. Then I would put these letters scrambled on the blank. We would read the sentence and try to figure out which word it could be. Then we would unscramble to spell it. I like this because it both used context clues (meaning for the word) and spelling. MANY sight words ARE phonetic OR have an explanation for why they are spelled that way. Many do not, true, but we need to point out the structure of the word no matter what to help our students learn them. For example, when I spell the word "to" I point out that the o makes the /oo/ sound like in the word "do". 

Spot it among other words: Sight Word "Hunts" 
Get your students looking for those words! This can be a center, an independent activity, or a warm-up in guided reading groups. Have your kids look for a certain word in books or big poems. 


 I blogged about this picture already last year. Both of my boys loved to search for words like this. They would focus on one word and try to find it. This was nice in the beginning because they didn't necessarily have to know the other words on the page yet. They were just looking for that one word. 

I also use this in the classroom:

You probably noticed I love anything that I can use with those bingo chips! The top picture shoes the student searching and covering the word come. The bottom picture shows an early finisher using one counter to read as many words as she can. When she comes to one she doesn't know, she leaves it on there and gets a new counter to continue on. At the end, I remind her of the words she wasn't sure of. 

You can find this and other activities here.

 The purpose of mastering sight words is to gain automaticity with these words so that eventually your students will become fluent readers when reading a book or reading passage. BUT sometimes we skip so many steps in between. I know I've been guilty of that. Okay, you know that word,  sweet! Let's read this huge passage then. Wait! Rewind. What I mean is, let's slowly give you those building blocks so that you can read that huge reading passage. Our struggling and beginning readers can be VERY intimidated by a huge reading passage without support. With that said, many of our students  learn sight words quickly and are ready for huge passages pretty quickly. I'm more focusing on your students who need a little extra time and guidance.

Sight Word Phrases
We've talked about practicing sight words in isolation, now we're moving into reading those sight words in the context of a phrase, sentence, or reading passage. First, you can focus on sight word phrases. These are the common phrases that go together.  This is a great way to transition from word to sentence. It's  good for them to see these words in come context. You can actually find fluency phrases all over! Just google and there you will find tons.

I used these after my students had a little practice with the sight words individually (flashcards, writing in sand, trace and say, search the word, etc.)  These can be found with my sight word program all the way at the bottom of this post. :)

Simple Sentences
I introduce sentences shortly after introducing the first few sight words to my kinders. This is one of my favorite creations for my beginning readers: Build a Sentence. I slowly introduce sight words and students build sentences using those sight words and word cards with picture clues. Even with just a few sight words, you can mix and match to make several different sentences. 

I introduce the, see, I, a. You can make sentences with the picture cards so your kids can practice building simple sentences. Then I add in We and like. Soon, they can mix different words to make a variety of sentences by matching the colors up. 

I recently updated with black-and-white sight words cards so you could print onto colored paper. I also added some CVC word cards to use in place of the picture cards. 

The picture cards are perfect for introducing the early guided reading strategies: Get your mouth ready with the first sound and look at the picture. 

Here's a little video of my son beginning to learn his sight words:

Here, I've made sentences with a focus on one sight word. This one has the word "are" in each. I incorporated strategy usage in this activity. On the right are the first three strategies I teach: look at the picture, get your mouth ready, and sound it out. For beginning sight words, I made sentences where the student could be successful with these three strategies AND the knowledge of the sight word or past sight words. This way, they can practice those words in context and be successful! 

If you just want repetition and not the strategy pictures, I also have just checkmarks. 

Give your students practice reading those words in context where they can be successful. You can write simple sentences using sentence strips or on chart paper, too! 

If you are interested, you can find a Pre-Primer set of these HERE.  
Primer set coming soon!

Sight Word Ladder Stories
Once students know a handful of sight words and are even reading those fluency phrases, we get a little excited about throwing them that reading passage or big ol' book to read. And yes, absolutely that is our goal and many, many kids make that transfer seamlessly and quickly. However, some need a little extra something. I made some Sentence Ladders using mainly Pre-Primer Sight words. Each card has a sentence ladder. The cards together make a short story. There are 10 stories, each with 6-10 sentence cards. I'm working on my next set with the Primer words. :) If you want to read more about these, you can click here. 

If you want to try out a free sentence ladder story from the Florida Center for Reading Research, you can click here

For more posts about sight words, click here. There, you will find ideas for the summer AND a printable pack for parents filled with ideas to practice sight words.


Here are a couple of pictures from old posts as well:

I hope this post is helpful! Enjoy your summer!!

If you are looking for a systematic sight word program, keep reading. Otherwise, ignore the rest of this post!

A Sequential Sight Word Program

This includes the flashcards, fluency phrases, and tracking pages for Dolch words (Pre-primer-3rd Grade.) I divided the list into smaller, more manageable groups. There are 5 animals, each with 5-6 color sets. There are 6-8 words per color. This is just my way of making it more systematic and manageable. After each color, you get track progress! 

This just shows ONE of the animals in this set. There are 5 animals: elephant is Dolch Pre-Primer, tiger is Primer, monkey is 1st grade, lion is 2nd grade, and rhino is 3rd grade. I do not wait until 2nd/3rd to teach those though. I want my first graders to know all of them. Each animal is further divided by color as shown below. This allows for more successes for our students and more of a roadmap for us as teachers. 

I keep track of each student's progress with this exit slip. As they finish a color, they get to color one lion on their certificate. I send a blank exit slip home as well so parents know what words their child will be working on and so they can practice at home. (I encourage them to make flashcards, not just to use this paper though.)

Along with the flashcards are fluency phrases. Below shows the elephant fluency phrases. 

The fluency phrases will match the colors and animals in the set. This way, once your kiddos master red elephant, they can read the red elephant fluency phrases. This program is sequential, which really helps the kids master it!

As you can see, I also have a printable version as well that works very well with a small group. I have copies of the fluency phrases that I give a small group to practice together. I can reuse those pages if I put it in a page protector. 

This is how I store it all: 

You can find this sight word pack here.

For all of my sight word resources, click HERE.