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What are Sight Words, And Why are They Important

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

When children learn to read, they sound out letter sounds and blend them to produce the words they see. Most children can blend long words using phonics and decoding, even if they have never seen the word before.


Words like "cat" can be easily pronounced when they blend the sounds /k/, /a/, and /t/. However, it gets tricky with words like “the.” The individual letters that make up this word are not even used in pronouncing it.


Reading is an essential skill in any language. It is as important as speaking. However, this skill can be difficult to learn for children. There are many different skills and strategies needed for fluent reading.


To help children get started, it's important to focus on sight words. But first, we need to answer two questions: What are sight words? And why is it important to teach them? After that, we can talk about how to teach sight words and some fun activities to help students learn.



What are Sight Words?


You want your child to recognize sight words just by looking at them. These words appear so frequently that beginning readers eventually don't need to sound them out. Instead, they recognize them instantly.


Sight words are commonly used words that appear a lot in both spoken and written language, like "the," "come," "to," and "where." Your child needs to learn sight words because they make up many of the words used in early reading materials. A recent study shows that sight words account for up to 75% of the words in beginner-level books. Learning a lot of sight words helps kids become faster and more fluent readers. When they know a sight word well, they don't have to stop and think about how to say or spell it.


Different sight words are taught at each grade level, with each set building on the previous one. This means that once your child learns sight words in kindergarten, they will be expected to recognize those words as they learn new ones in first grade and beyond.


Examples of Sight Words


Sight words are commonly used words in the English language that readers need to learn and recognize instantly by sight rather than by decoding or sounding out individual letters. Now, what makes a word a sight word? Here are some of the key characteristics of sight words:


  • High frequency: Sight words are some of the most frequently used words in the English language, such as "the", "and", "is", "of", "a", "in", "to", and "that".


  • They have irregular spelling: Many sight words do not follow regular phonetic patterns, so they cannot be sounded out using standard phonics rules. For example, you cannot pronounce the word "said" as it is spelled phonetically. It must be learned as a sight word.


  • Essential for reading and writing: Sight words are crucial for fluent reading and writing because they make up a large proportion of the words used in written English.


  • Taught through repetition and memorization: Since sight words cannot be decoded, they are usually taught through repeated exposure and memorization. Students are often given lists of sight words to practice reading and spelling.


  • Often short and simple: Sight words tend to be short, simple words that are easy to recognize and remember.


Teachers use various lists to determine the appropriate sight words for each grade level. In the early grades, your child's teacher may include their names on the sight word list since these words are frequently used in the classroom. While not technically considered "sight words," recognizing them will be helpful for the students.


Sight word lists are typically composed of words from the Revised Dolch List of Basic Sight Words and Fry's 300 Instant Sight Words, which are also referred to as Dolch or Fry words. Each grade level has its own set of sight words, and they progressively build upon each other. Once a child learns the sight words for a particular grade level, they are expected to know those words in addition to the new ones introduced in the following grade.


Sight words build on each other from grade to grade, so once a child has learned a set of words in kindergarten, they will need to be able to recognize them as well as the new words introduced in first grade. This technique is known as scaffolding, and it helps children be able to decode new words using the ones they have already learned.


Here are examples of the sight words kids learn in each grade:


  • Kindergarten: but, be, do, they, have, she, he, with, was, what.


  • First grade: again, his, after, from, of, her, his, then, when


  • Second grade: before, write, right, which, does, around, goes, been, because, don't.


  • Third grade: own, better, eight, carry, light, laugh, only, myself, shall, together


  • Fourth grade: measure, area, certain, piece, body, complete, notice, usually, questions, unit


  • Fifth grade: special, among, shown, course, language, equation, machine, produce, minutes, quickly


Sight Words vs Phonics


Sight words and phonics are both methods for teaching children to read, but they differ in their approach and focus.


Sight words refer to words that are recognized at a glance, without needing to be sounded out. These are often high-frequency words, such as "the," "and," and "is." Sight word instruction involves teaching children to recognize these words by sight, often through memorization or repetition.


Phonics, on the other hand, is a method of teaching children to read by focusing on the sounds of letters and letter combinations. Phonics instruction involves teaching children the relationship between letters and their sounds, and how to use this knowledge to sound out unfamiliar words. Phonics instruction often begins with teaching the sounds of individual letters and then moves on to blends, digraphs, and other combinations of letters.


While both sight words and phonics are important components of reading instruction, phonics instruction is considered essential for developing strong decoding skills and building a foundation for reading fluency. Sight words are also important, but they are typically taught alongside phonics instruction and are used to build reading speed and comprehension.


Why Are Sight Words Important?


Sight words play a crucial role in a child's reading and writing development, enabling them to read with fluency and write with ease. Mastery of sight words allows a child to understand up to 50% of written text without the need to stop and decode familiar words. Sight words can also be thought of as the "glue" that holds sentences together.


In the early stages of schooling, children are often introduced to storybooks, poems, and basic picture books that contain a significant number of sight words. A strong foundation in sight words can greatly enhance a child's ability to comprehend written texts.


It's important to note that a child needs a combination of phonics and sight words. When encountering an unfamiliar word, a child may rely on phonics to decode it. However, as they become familiar with a word, they can recognize it by sight alone. With exposure to more words, a child will rely less on phonics and more on sight words for reading comprehension.


Here are 3 benefits of teaching a child sight words:


1. Promotes Reading Comprehension


Mastering sight words is essential for promoting reading comprehension. Sight words are words that a child can recognize instantly without the need for decoding strategies.


When a child understands how sight words are made, they can enjoy reading to learn and reading for fun. Through practice, we become more fluent at tasks, and as an adaptive species, we tend to perform tasks more effortlessly than we have done them before. Similarly, a child who has mastered sight words can read comprehension passages with ease.


2. Boosts Confidence


During the early stages of schooling, the majority of words encountered by children are sight words. If a child learns these words, their vocabulary and reading fluency can be greatly enhanced. When faced with a book or text, a child may feel overwhelmed by the number of words on the page.


However, if they are already familiar with 50% of the words, they will be less likely to feel overwhelmed. Additionally, their fluency will help them feel more confident and less doubtful. This self-confidence is crucial for a child's development, as it can impact their self-esteem.


3. Provide Clues To The Context Of The Text


Familiarity with sight words can provide contextual clues to the meaning of a text. If a child recognizes sight words within a paragraph or sentence, they may be able to decode the overall meaning of the text. In conjunction with accompanying pictures, a child can often determine the story's theme and even learn new vocabulary from the text.


By recognizing sight words, children can more easily understand the meaning of a text, improving their reading comprehension and overall language skills. The combination of sight words and pictures can also enhance a child's imagination and ability to create mental images of the story. Overall, sight words play a vital role in a child's reading development, helping them to understand and engage with written material more effectively.


It's really important to teach students how to memorize sight words as a whole. That way, they can recognize them right away, without having to stop and try to sound them out. It would be so frustrating to have to do that with every single word!


Once a reader knows sight words really well, they can understand about half of the words in any text they read. That's because they don't have to stop and decode the sight words anymore. They can just recognize them and keep on reading.


Learning sight words doesn't just help students read better, it also makes them better writers too!



What Is The Best Way To Teach Sight Words?


If you asked five teachers this question, they might all give different answers. But one thing we can all agree on is that the best way to get young readers interested is to make learning sight words fun and hands-on.


When you use activities like games, centers, and manipulatives, it can help students learn without even realizing they're doing it! Games like Hangman, Bingo, Word Catchers, and Beach Ball Toss are common games many people have found helpful to help children learn sight words.


Try to make sight word learning a regular part of your reading time and change up the activities frequently. By setting aside specific time for sight words, you'll be amazed at how quickly your young readers improve.


Incorporating Sight Words Into Reading Instruction


When teaching a child to read, never skip sight words, or confuse them with too many rules. Take it one step at a time. Start with the most common sight words. There are about 220 sight words that make up about 75% of the words used in most texts. Begin with the most common ones, as they will give your students a solid foundation for reading.


Always use them in context. Teach the sight words in context by using them in sentences and stories, and encourage students to use them in their own writing.


Common Challenges In Teaching Sight Words


Different children learn and grasp new concepts in different ways and at different paces. You cannot measure your child’s progress with another’s.


What can you do if your child has problems learning or identifying even the most basic sight words? Don’t be quick to call names. But you may need support from professionals.


Reading can be challenging for children with impairments in phonological processing, fluency, or reading comprehension. Struggling readers may become frustrated with their slower progress compared to their peers, leading to feelings of low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.


You can join childhood literacy programs for your child. These programs focus on helping young children succeed in life where they may have otherwise struggled to thrive in a world so dependent on speech, reading, and writing.


Sight Words Matter!


Sight words are common words we see and hear all the time, like “the” and “to”. These words can be hard to read because they don't follow the normal rules. If children have to stop and try to sound out these words, it can be hard to understand what they are reading. That's why it's important for kids to learn these words by heart. When they know them well, they can read more easily and understand better.


It's important to prioritize sight word instruction for young readers. By teaching and practicing sight words, we can help children read more fluently and improve their reading comprehension. Let's incorporate fun and engaging activities to make learning sight words an enjoyable experience for our students. By giving children the tools they need to succeed, we can set them up for a lifetime of literacy success.

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