Sight words: An evidence-based literacy strategy

Sight words are words that students are expected to recognize instantly. With the right support, students can become so familiar with these words that they no longer need to pause and try to decode them. Some sight words are regularly spelled words, and some are spelled irregularly.

You may hear other educators use the term high-frequency words. These are words that appear very often in what students read. It’s especially important for these frequently used words to become sight words. Students can read with better fluency when they recognize these words right away.

By explicitly teaching sight words, you can help cement the words into students’ memories. Use this three-part strategy, which starts with sound-letter mapping, then moves to a flashcard activity, and ends with other ways to keep reinforcing the sight words with repeated exposure.

Watch: Sound-letter mapping for sight words

Watch this video from Literacy How of a teacher using sound-letter mapping to teach her students the high-frequency word lit

Read: How to use this three-part strategy

Objective: Students will increase the number of sight words they can recognize instantly without decoding. 

Grade levels (with standards): 

  • K (Common Core Literacy RF.K.2: Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words; RF.K.3.C: Read common high-frequency words by sight)

  • 1 (Common Core Literacy RF.1.3: Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words; RF.1.3.G: Recognize and read grade-appropriate irregularly spelled words)

  • 2–5 (Common Core Literacy RF.2.3, RF.3.3, RF.4.3.A, and RF.5.3.A: Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words)

Best used for instruction with:

  • Whole class

  • Small groups

  • Individuals

How to prepare: 

Choose words to teach. Assess how well your students recognize sight words using a simple pre-test. For example, you can have students read grade-level words from Dolch or Fry word lists. Then, make a list of the 25 words your students missed most often. Divide the list into groups of five words to teach each day. (You can adjust the number of words based on your students’ needs.)

Plan daily practice. Allow about 10 minutes each day for direct instruction and practice with sight words.

Prepare materials. On the board, draw sound boxes (a long rectangle divided into two, three, or four squares, depending on the number of sounds in the words you plan to teach). Give students a matching handout of the sound boxes, such as this printable of Elkonin sound boxes.

How to teach: 

1. Start with sound-letter mapping. This practice helps students connect the sounds and letters in words together. 

Choose one of the five words you want to teach. Tell the students they’ll be spelling the word. (Example: with.) Invite them to repeat the word. Then ask, “How many sounds do you hear in with?” Hold up one finger per sound as your students say the sounds: /w/ /i/ /th/. Say the sounds with the students to help them identify individual sounds.

On the board, write in the sound boxes the letter or letters that correspond to each sound — one sound per box. Then read the word together. 

Students can write the letters on their handout. Or you can give your students small manipulatives (like coins or bingo chips). Have students move one manipulative into a box for each sound. Then, when it’s time to write the corresponding letter or letters in each box, students can move the manipulatives out of the way to write the letter(s).

Repeat the sound-letter mapping with each of the five sight words.

2. Practice the words with one of the flashcard activities below. Both involve waiting a set amount of time between showing a card and asking students to say the word(s) on the card.

Constant time delay: Use this flashcard activity to give your students repeated exposure to their five words. Write one word on each card.

In round one, show and read the words one at a time to students. Wait three seconds to give students time to look at each word’s letters and patterns. Then ask them to repeat the word. 

In round two, shuffle the cards and show one card at a time. Wait three seconds and then ask students to read the word. If students read the word incorrectly or aren’t able to read it, point out a memorable feature. For example, “Notice the -ed at the end of used.” Wait three seconds and ask students to try the word again. Go through the stack of cards until students correctly identify each word at least twice.

Constant time delay for words with unusual spellings: Use this activity for word sets (or “word families”) that share a pattern but that don’t have typical letter-sound combinations (like could, should, and would). You can use a resource like Phinder to look for words based on letter patterns.

Write all the words from a word set in a vertical column on a card. Show students the card and ask them to identify how each word ends. After students respond correctly, point to and say each word on the card. Wait three seconds and then ask students to say the words. 

If you’re practicing words from different word sets, be sure to write the different sets on different cards. Shuffle the cards and have students read through each word set.

Teaching tip: If you’re introducing these sight word activities for the first time, make sure to explicitly teach the activity and offer guided practice. If students are familiar with an activity, provide a quick model.

3. Continue to reinforce the sight words with repeated exposure, no matter which activity you choose. You can do this by reading texts — from books to posters to comics — that contain the sight words. You can also use word walls or word banks to help students keep track of the words they’ve learned. Once you notice that students can consistently recognize the words by sight, add them to your regular word games and activities. 

Understand: Why this sight words strategy works

When you use this strategy, you’re teaching a skill called orthographic mapping. It’s a process we use to store printed words in our long-term memory. Orthographic mapping is essential for learning sight words.

Here’s what happens when we use orthographic mapping: When we see a word, we break it apart by the sounds we hear in the word (phonemes) and the letter and letter patterns (graphemes) that correspond to those sounds. This process fixes the word into our long-term memory. Eventually, we recognize the word immediately when we see it. We still see all the letters, but we know the word so well that we don’t have to sound it out. 

Research shows that most readers need between one and four exposures to a word to commit it to long-term memory. Struggling readers need even more exposure to new words because orthographic mapping can be hard. Repeated practice with sight words gives students the exposure they need to build their sight word vocabulary.

Teaching tip: For English language learners, including a word’s meaning during instruction can help with reading and language development. Try using hand gestures as you teach word meanings.

Share this article with families to help them understand what sight words are and why they’re important. You can also send home this list of 12 ways for families to help kids practice sight words at home.

Research behind this strategy

“Word boxes improve phonemic awareness, letter-sound correspondences, and spelling skills of at-risk kindergartners,” from Remedial and Special Education

“Teaching sight words as a part of comprehensive reading instruction,” from the Iowa Reading Research Center


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