The Importance of Learning Sight Words July 08 2008

Learning sight words is an important step in early literacy.Reading is all about constructing meaning from text. The meaning is derived from what readers bring to the text as well as what they discern from the text.  That meaning is dependent on the rapid, automatic, and effortless recognition of words.

According to Patricia Cunningham in Phonics They Use, “In order to read and write fluently with comprehension and meaning, children must be able to automatically read and spell the most frequent words. As the store of words they can automatically read and spell increases, so will their speed and comprehension.”

Readers need to recognize each word as quickly and effortlessly as possible so that they can pay attention to the more mentally demanding task of understanding what they are reading. “When children at an early age learn to recognize and automatically spell the most frequently occurring words, all their attention is freed for decoding and spelling less frequent words and more importantly, for processing meaning.” (Cunningham, 2000)

What area the best sight words to choose?

Choosing the words on which to focus children’s attention is a matter of efficiency. According to research there are words that appear more frequently than others in print. In fact:

  • 13 words account for approximately 25% of all words in school texts (Johns, 1997): a, and, for, he, in, is, it, of, that, the, to, was, you;
  • 109 words account for 50% of the words in school texts (Adams, 1990);
  • the first 300 instant words make up about 65 percent of all written material (Fry, 1993).

These words are referred to as “sight words,” “high frequency words,” or “instant words.”

The sight words selected for instruction in Words They Need to Know by Sheron Brown and Sally Oppy are the first 300 words of the American Heritage List of 1,000 most frequently used words in the English written language.

Students will encounter these words more frequently than any other words in print and, for this reason, they need to recognize them on sight, and need to read them without hesitation. The activities suggested in Words They Need to Know will help your students learn these sight words and tap into a wide range of learning modalities, including visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and visual-motor.

How do I fit sight word activities into my instructional day?

Word activities may be placed at a literacy center. Develop activities that are designed for individual, partner, or small group settings. Sheron Brown recommends that  sight word activities are broken into three subsections: word card activities, magnetic letter activities, and writing activities. Some could certainly be in a student’s own workspace, while others could be conducted with an adult (teacher, volunteer, aide, assistant).

Prior to the students’ independent practice of their words, the teacher should model and demonstrate the assigned sight word activity. For further reading on how word study and sight word instruction fit into a literacy block structure, refer to Classrooms that Work, Phonics They Use, Words Their Way, and Word Matters.

Teaching students to operate in the independent sight word activity centers is crucial to having students be successful at any type of independent activity. Taking instructional time to train students in the each one of the independent sight word activities is instructional time well spent. While the activities may change, the students need to operate in a consistent manner within each center. Students need to complete a given sight word activity by following a consistent procedure in a consistent location.

How do I manage sight word materials?

Plan sight word activities that engage kids in the classroom.

In a student-accessible location, keep a file folder for each student with his name clearly visible. In each student’s folder, maintain:

  • the student’s current set of 25 word cards, held in a plastic resealable bag, with the student’s name written on the bag in permanent ink  
  • current assessment record keeping sheet, stapled to the inside front cover of the file folder. Additional assessment record keeping sheets may be stapled on top of each other as the child masters each list of sight words
  • learning center card(s) for the sight word activity(ies) the student has been assigned for the selected time period

In a student-accessible location, keep a file folder for each activity with multiple sets of the appropriate materials for each sight word activity.

There are several effective partnering strategies that may be used. In a classroom setting where the goal is to have partners working independently, it is crucial that the partners be equal in their sight word knowledge, as much as possible. This assures that the partners are able to check each other’s work accurately. Another possibility is the use of cross-age tutors or parent volunteers to ensure accurate checking of sight word activities.

How do I assess my students for sight word knowledge?


  1. The setting is one-to-one. Often this will be the classroom teacher and the student, although it could be a trained paraprofessional or a classroom volunteer and the student. 
  2. The purpose of the assessment is to identify sight words unfamiliar to the student. You are looking to gather between five and fifteen words, with which the student will work, using the sight word activities.
  3. Ask the student to read the words on the list to you, in the order they appear.
  4. Make a mark to indicate an error (circle, mark through, or put a dot beside the word).
  5. Each student’s assessment should take between two and four minutes.
  6. Once you have gathered between five and fifteen words, stop the assessment. 
  7. Consider a word on a word list unfamiliar if a student does not instantly recognize the word, attempts to sound it out, or miscalls the word and then correctly identifies it.
  8. The goal is instant and automatic recognition of each sight word.

Sight word knowledge is essential if the beginning reader is to become a truly fluent reader. We have over a half-million words to communicate with, but half of everything we write and read depends on only 0.02 percent--on only those 100 most frequent words. Sight words are not a replacement for learning how words work, but they will give an early reader the confidence to figure the other things out.