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Making Sense of Sight Words

"Sight words" can be a confusing name as people often assume that they are a particular set of words that must be memorized as whole words; when in fact, the goal is that most words, through repeated exposure, become sight words (words recognized at the speed of sight). However, what people are usually referring to by sight words are high frequency words.

The research says that a student will need to be able to read 95-98% of the words in a text for comprehension (Schmitt, et al. 2011). It stands to reason then, that if a student can read a high percentage of high frequency words then they are well on their way to reaching that magic number.

There are two popular sets of high frequency words: Dolch Words and Fry Words. The original Dolch words list contained no nouns. It is a list of words that account for 50-75% of words in grade school reading materials. Fry words were an expansion of that work to include 1,000 of the most common words it texts for students in grade 3-9 and would prepare a student to read 90% of words in those texts. (retrieved on October 20, 2023 from Interestingly, there are 13 words that account for 25% of all words in school texts: a, and, for, he, in, is, it, of, that, the, to, was, you. (John & Wilke, 2018).

That begs the question: What is the most effective way to learn sight words / high frequency words? You may be surprised to learn that sight words still rely on the student's sound framework. This may explain why students with Dyslexia (characterized by a weakness in the phonological / sound system) have difficulty with "sight words". They are often able to memorize them, but have difficulty recognizing them in text. Or, may know them one week but not the next. (Normand, 2022).

It may surprise you that many are decodable, meaning we can sound them out using the common sound patterns of English. This means that any student receiving an explicit, systematics phonics program will learn to read these words as part of the reading process without the need for memorization. PHEW! Even in the 13 most common sight words, 8 are decodable and the remaining are decodable except for 1 sound. Once the student has learned the pattern (e.g., how to read words with consonants and short vowels), then we can introduce some tricky words that don't follow the pattern.

Start with the sound framework.

  1. Place out the word and read it for the student (e.g., the)

  2. Have them underline the letters that map to the sounds they hear (e.g., th/e - here, the 'e' will sound like "uh"). Or, map the letters into Elkonin boxes for the sounds. Draw a heart over the one(s) that didn't match the letter as that is the part we need to know by heart.

  3. Have the student read it in different fonts

  4. Have the student write the word as they say it. Make it multisensory! Write it in shaving cream, in sand, on textured paper, with a crayon on plastic mesh canvas.

  5. Next, place the word away and have the student write it on paper 2-3 times while saying it.

Looking for some sight word practice pages? Check out this activity:

See the attachments below for Fry words organized by pattern, irregular words to introduce and helpful spelling patterns to know.

sight word list- short vowels
Download PDF • 104KB

sight word lists- digraphs & blends
Download PDF • 112KB

sight word lists- silent e
Download PDF • 91KB

sight word lists- long vowels
Download PDF • 113KB

sight word lists- diphthongs & r-controlled
Download PDF • 100KB


John, J.L. & Wilke, K.H. (September 2018). High Frequency Words: Some Ways to Teach and Help Students Practice and Learn Them. Texas Journal of Literacy Education, 6(1), pages 3-13.

Kilpatrick, D (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties

Normand, G. (September 2022). What Dyslexia Looks Like by Grade Level. EP Magazine, pages 26-29. /

Schmitt, et. al. (2011). The Percentage of Words Known in a Text and Reading Comprehension. The Modern Language Journal, 95(i), pages 26-43. /

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