Making Sight Words Stick

Making Sight Words Stick

Making Sight Words Stick

One of the earliest steps in becoming a fluent reader is learning sight words, the words students typically recognize within seconds and can read without having to sound out letters. The ability to recognize these high-frequency words helps a student learn faster and become a more fluent reader.

There are many techniques and strategies for teaching these words. Unfortunately, too often sight word teaching boils down to drills that are tedious, for students and teachers alike.

In this article, we’ll examine some of the best methods of instruction to make sight word acquisition easier, more effective, and more fun.

Which words to teach

There are over half a million words in the English language. How can a classroom teacher decide which sight words children must learn? A number of sight word lists have been compiled to help teachers make that determination. These lists all have similar attributes. Among the most popular is the Dolch sight words list. Once students are able to read all of the words on Dolch’s list, they have access to almost 75% of all words they’ll ever need to know.

Games for visual reinforcement

Worksheets involving individual students in matching exercises are not the best way to engage students in sight word mastery. Research shows the use of games to reinforce sight word vocabulary is more effective. Of course, children love games. In addition, games often include variations teachers may use to reach children who are advanced as well as those who are struggling.

All games are not alike when it comes to sight word instruction. Active games (such as Word Toss and Word in a Circle) have been shown to be more effective than passive games (such as Word Checkers and Go Fish). However, a balanced approach combining both active and passive games may produce the greatest benefits in vocabulary instruction.

Patterned predictable books

Patterned predictable books remain a popular and proven way to teach essential sight words. Why is that? Patterned books contain repetitive language, sequences, rhythms, and rhymes. They also incorporate many of the words on the sight word lists. For example, The Cat in the Hat emphasizes 78% of high-frequency words and One Fish, Two Fish emphasizes 75%.

Researchers found children exposed to pattern books changed from slowly sounding out each word to relying more on context clues. Furthermore, reading pattern books was an overall positive experience. The benefit increases when children are allowed to join in to predict what comes next, take turns with echo reading (re-reading the sentence the teacher just read), or write the target words when reading them.

Environmental print

Our eyes and brain crave environmental stimulation. That’s why advertisements are so effective. Teachers can duplicate that experience in the classroom by using environmental print to teach students sight word mastery. For example, involve children in printing simple labels to name objects in learning centers, their cubbies, directions, rooms—let their imaginations run wild.

There is no one perfect way to build sight vocabulary. Ideally, a variety of experiences can be combined, including word walls, patterned books, games, and more. Always keep in mind, though, that vocabulary is only one feature of a balanced reading program. According to the U.S. National Reading Panel (2002), combining sight word instruction with phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, and comprehension will result in the most effective program for teaching children to read and write.


For a deeper look at how to teach your children sight words, listen in on SDE’s webinar Making Sight Words Stick (Gr. PreK–1), by veteran educator Lynne Ecenbarger.