Teaching Sight Words as a Part of Comprehensive Reading Instruction

Three students writing in class

Best taught in brief-but-frequent sessions with feedback, the ability to automatically recognize sight words can help students focus efforts on decoding and understand text more fully.


Posted on: June 12, 2018

Word recognition plays an important role in learning to read. Although not a substitute for the critical skill of being able to decode unfamiliar words (referred to as word identification), recognizing some words automatically, or on sight, contributes to reading effortlessly and with understanding (McArthur et al., 2015). Words that can be recognized this way by a reader are known as sight words. Learning certain kinds of sight words enables children to devote their energy to decoding words that are more difficult.

What Are Sight Words?

There are two types of sight words. The first type includes decodable words that frequently occur in printed English (e.g., “and,” “like,” “get”). These high frequency words can be read by sounding them out, but they appear so often in text that learning to read them on sight will increase children’s reading fluency (Joseph, Nation, & Liversedge, 2013). Moreover, these words can provide a student access to connected text in advance of learning the phonics principles otherwise necessary for decoding them (Ehri, 2014).

The other type of sight words cannot be decoded because they do not follow the typical letter-sound correspondences (e.g., “have,” “there,” “of”). These are irregular words and because they cannot be identified, they must be recognized automatically.

What Sight Words Should Be Taught?  

Several research-based lists of sight words are available for teachers to use when planning instruction or for families to use when working with their children at home. One of the most popular lists is Edward Dolch’s (1936) list of 220 basic sight words. Commonly referred to as the Dolch words, this list was developed as an alternative to longer sight word lists of 500 or more words. To be included on the list, a word had to appear on all three popular word lists of the early 1900s:

  • The Child Study Committee of the International Kindergarten Union’s (1928) list of 2,596 words
  • The Gates (1926) list of vocabulary for primary grade children
  • Wheeler and Howell’s (1930) list of 453 words most frequently used in beginning readers published from 1922 to 1929.

The final Dolch list excluded all nouns, which are concrete and easily referenced in illustrations, and included an additional 27 words not found on the three lists mentioned above. Dolch cautioned that his list of words did not include all the sight words children might need to learn in the elementary grades, but the words represented the minimum that children should be able to read automatically.

Another popular list of sight words is Edward Fry’s (2000) 1000 Instant Words. Fry’s list differs from Dolch’s (1936) in a few key ways. First, Fry’s list has been revised several times. What originally began as a list of 1000 words (Fry, 1957) was condensed to a list of 300 words (Fry, 1980) and, most recently, reintroduced as a modified list of 1000 words (Fry, 2000). In comparison, the Dolch words have not been updated since they were first introduced. Second, the longer list compiled by Fry is broader in scope. Among the resources used to develop the Fry list were the Dolch words and The American Heritage Word Frequency Book (Carroll, Davies, & Richman, 1971). As a result, the Fry list includes nearly all of the Dolch Words, with 19 exceptions:

an ate call drink eight funny goes going he here
hurt its long myself own round she thank up  

The other words contained on Fry’s (2000) list represent the most common words in the English language organized in groups of 100. Fry suggested that his list of 1000 Instant Words be used as part of the comprehensive literacy instruction provided to beginning readers in elementary school as well as struggling readers in middle and high school.

How to Teach Sight Words

Now that you know about some of the validated sight word lists, there are several research-based recommendations to remember when teaching sight words (e.g., Ayala & O’Connor, 2013; January, Lovelace, Foster, & Ardoin, 2017). Lists ordered by frequency provide guidance for teachers and families in considering which generally are the highest priority for instruction. However, the words that children are about to encounter in a book should be considered alongside the sight word lists. For young children, choose one or two sight words from the book that appear in the first 100 on the list. Older children may be able to learn five to seven sight words from the book at a time, and those words should gradually be lower on the list of frequency. The following are additional tips for teaching sight words:

  1. Introduce new sight words in isolation (i.e., the sight word by itself), but immediately follow this with repeated exposures to the same sight words in books and other text materials.
  2. Do not introduce two sight words that are similar or easily confused at the same time. For instance, “will” and “well” should be introduced in separate lessons as should “on” and “no.”
  3. Provide brief (i.e., less than 10 minutes per session) but frequent sight word instruction, especially for beginning and struggling readers.
  4. Offer students numerous opportunities to practice and receive immediate, specific feedback. For example, if a child reads the word “this” correctly, respond with positive feedback: “Yes! The word is this.” If a child read “this” incorrectly, respond with corrective feedback: “The word is this. Say the word this.”

Immediately encountering the words in a book provides an opportunity to practice reading them, but building the ability to read them with automaticity, or effortlessly upon sight, will take repeated practice. If a child is struggling to remember previously introduced sight words, continue practicing with those before adding new sight words. Finally, it is important to remember that sight word instruction is only one part of a comprehensive reading lesson and must be accompanied by instruction in phonics (Ehri, 2014).

Reading Racetrack: One Research-Based Sight Word Strategy

One research-based sight word activity to use as part of sight word instruction is the reading racetrack (Rinaldi, Sells, & McLaughlin, 1997; Sullivan, Konrad, Joseph, & Luu, 2013). Although implemented one-on-one in the Sullivan et al. study, the reading racetrack strategy has been modified here (see Supplemental Materials for Teachers below to access this resource) for implementation in peer pairs and small groups. Initially, a set of sight words is taught with feedback, and then the racetrack activity provides students practice with the sight words to build automaticity. Children read as many of the sight words as they can in 1 minute. The instructor then forms small groups of students who made similar errors, and provides direct instruction to each group. Children then practice reading the sight words again and graph their results.

Part of the Bigger Reading Picture

Given the need to recognize high frequency and irregular words automatically, sight word instruction remains one component of a comprehensive literacy program for early readers and, for older students experiencing reading difficulties, a part of reading intervention. To prevent students from becoming reliant on the ineffective practice of memorizing lists of words, the instruction should be delivered in small doses (i.e., less than 10 minutes) and occur alongside systematic phonics instruction. The sight words themselves should be drawn from research-based lists and be applied immediately to reading connected text. It is important to remember that sight word drills are not the route to skilled reading ability. Rather, most words become sight words when a reader is able to efficiently process the sound-symbol correspondences of the printed forms (Ehri, 2014). When implementing effective reading instruction, only a small set of words need be taught as sight words. Reading most words should be an effortless act.

Supplemental Materials for Teachers

PDF iconReading Racetrack Sight Word Activity

Teach sight word recognition using this exercise that involves multiple rounds of instruction and practice.


Ayala, S. M., & O'Connor, R. (2013). The effects of video self‐modeling on the decoding skills of children at risk for reading disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 28, 142-154. doi:10.1111/ldrp.12012

Carroll, J. B., Davies, P., & Richman, B. (1971). The American Heritage word frequency book. New York, NY: American Heritage Publishing Co.

Child Study Committee of the International Kindergarten Union. (1928). A study of the vocabulary of children before entering the first grade. Washington: International Kindergarten Union.

Dolch, E. W. (1936). A basic sight vocabulary. The Elementary School Journal, 36, 456-460. doi:10.1086/457353

Ehri, L. C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18, 5-21. doi:10.1080/10888438.2013.819356

Fry, E. (1957). Developing a word list for remedial reading. Elementary English, 34, 456-458. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41384648

Fry, E. (1980). The new instant word list. The Reading Teacher, 34, 284-289. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20195230

Fry, E. (2000). 1000 instant words: The most common words for teaching reading, writing, and spelling. Westminster, CA: Teacher Created Resources.

Gates, A. I. (1926). A reading vocabulary for the primary grades. New York, NY: Teachers College, Columbia University.

January, S. A. A., Lovelace, M. E., Foster, T. E., & Ardoin, S. P. (2017). A comparison of two flashcard interventions for teaching sight words to early readers. Journal of Behavioral Education, 26, 151-168. doi:10.1007/s10864-016-9263-2

Joseph, H. L., Nation, K., & Liversedge, S. P. (2013). Using eye movements to investigate word frequency effects in children's sentence reading. School Psychology Review42, 207-222. doi:10.1016/j.visres.2015.05.008

McArthur, G., Castles, A., Kohnen, S., Larsen, L., Jones, K., Anandakumar, T., & Banales, E. (2015). Sight word and phonics training in children with dyslexia. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 48, 391-407. doi:10.1177/0022219413504996

Rinaldi, L., Sells, D., & McLaughlin, T. F. (1997). The effect of reading racetracks on the sight word acquisition and fluency of elementary students. Journal of Behavioral Education, 7, 219-233. doi:10.1023/A:1022845209417

Sullivan, M., Konrad, M., Joseph, L. M., & Luu, K. C. (2013). A comparison of two sight word reading fluency drill formats. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 57, 102-110. doi:10.1080/1045988x.2012.674575

Wheeler, H. E., & Howell, E. A. (1930). A first grade vocabulary study. The Elementary School Journal, 31, 52-60. doi:10.1086/456516