Sight Words 101

What is this list of words, and why does your child need to learn them?

By Allison McDonald



First let's define what sight words are. Sight words are defined by your child. His sight words are the words that he can already recognize by sight without using any specific strategies. That's not usually how the term is used, though. Just to confuse you, when you see lists of sight words what you are usually seeing are lists of high frequency words or Dolch Words. Edward William Dolch first compiled the full list and broke it down into five levels for children to learn by sight. They are a list of 220 words that are used so often in print that together they make up an estimated 75% of all words used in books. Some of the words cannot be decoded using conventional strategies so memorizing them until they are known by sight is beneficial.

You might think that these words are so common that kids would just learn them organically through reading and other everyday print. But many of the words also defy standard phonetic conventions, meaning they are impossible to sound out. They are often also difficult to illustrate, so children can't use illustrations in picture books to make a deeper connection to these words. Can you illustrate "is" or "it?"  Me neither. 

On the flip side, the wonderful thing about these words being so common is that children learn them easily with repetition because they are usually words that they already have in their everyday vocabulary. 

Working hard to learn these words by sight (memorizing) pays off. It allows kids to free up cognitive resources so they can focus on the tougher words that require strong decoding skills. They are also able to understand the majority of the text if those decoding skills fail. There is more to why sight words are important than just simply the mechanics of reading; they are also fantastic confidence boosters. One of my educational philosophies is to build children's confidence up and then present an attainable challenge. Sight-word knowledge provides a scaffold of understanding and confidence for new readers who need to use all the other tools in their tool box to complete the job at hand: reading with understanding. 

So now that we know what they are, why they are important, and what they can do, we need to figure out how parents can help. 

Have fun with these words! 

Of all the various reading strategies, I find working on sight words to be the easiest for parents to get involved in. If you aren't sure which words to work on with your children, you can check with their classroom teacher or find the Dolch word lists here. 

Using these lists, try out some of these simple sight-word activities at home. 

1. Sight Word Bingo

You can find many different commercial sight-word bingo games, or you can make your own. Here is a simple post from that shows you how. 

2. Sight Word Hide & Seek

Write sight words on index cards, and hide them around the house. Set the timer and give your child two minutes to find as many sight words as he can. At the end of the two minutes, have him read the list to you. He gets one point for every correct word. Repeat, challenging him to break his own record. 

3. Sight Word Memory

Using index cards, write out pairs of sight words and place them facedown on a table. Take turns flipping over the cards and reading the words. If you make a match, you keep the cards. The person with the most cards when they are all turned over wins. 

4. Meal Time Word Wall 

Make a word wall with a large piece of butcher paper. Start with two words, adding a new one daily. Have your child read the whole list every mealtime. If she has trouble with the list, do not add more words until she can read them without trouble. 

How do you work on sight words at home? Tell us about it on the Scholastic Parents Facebook page.

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