How to Teach Sight Words (What Parents Need to Know)
You’ve heard that sight words are important for learning to read. But you don’t need to be a teacher to teach sight words to your child!
Your child’s teacher just sent home a list of sight words for your child to memorize?
I have a confession: I used to tell my students’ parents that their children needed to memorize the sight words.
Now that I’m a parent of a dyslexic child, I’ve learned there is a better and easier way to learn sight words. This is how to teach sight words to your child.
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Why Teach Sight Words to Your Child?
You might want to teach your child sight words because you:
- have heard they are important.
- received a list from your child’s teacher.
- have a struggling reader.
- want to give your child a head-start.
- like to teach your child to read.
Or maybe your child’s teacher has assigned the sight words. Whatever the reason, there are some important things to know about teaching sight words.
What are sight words?
Sight words are words that readers recognize by sight. Rather than using effort to decode, readers just immediately identify them.
An adult can have over 50,000 sight words. If you can read circus, elephant, and transportation without sounding them out, those are sight words for you.
When a lot of people say sight words, they really mean is high-frequency words like:
High-frequency words are the words that are most common in written texts. Knowing those high-frequency by sight allows readers to read more quickly in order to understand, or comprehend, the story.
Since “sight words” is so commonly used in reference to high-frequency words, I use the term interchangeably with high-frequency words in this post.
Does my child need to memorize sight words?
There’s a common misconception that children need to memorize sight words. Many people say that high-frequency words don’t follow phonetic patterns and are irregular.
This is not true. And I’m told guilty of believing this.
(It’s not the teacher’s fault. Most of us were inadequately trained to teach reading).
The majority of high-frequency sight words do follow common phonics patterns.
- Related: Sight Words Sorted by Sounds
Some of the remaining words might seem irregular because your child hasn’t been taught them yet.
While your child doesn’t need to memorize high-frequency words, they do need to practice them until they are automatic.
What is the Dolch Sight Word List?
The Dolch sight word list is a list of the most frequently used words in the English language. These words make up over 50% of written text.
Here’s the best news about this list:
68% of the Dolch words are decodable and follow common phonics patterns.
The remaining words might seem non-phonetic until your child learns those more complex phonics patterns in future grade levels.
They also might not seem phonetic because a lot of parents (and teachers!) don’t have strong background knowledge in the origins of English.
It’s not your fault – you weren’t taught it.
How many sight words are there?
There are 220 Dolch sight words. There are an additional 95 high-frequency noun sight words on the Dolch lists.
There are other lists of sight words, too. The Fry’s Instant Word list has 1,000 high-frequency words.
But remember, your child and you will have tens of thousands of words you recognize by sight as a proficient reader.
At what age should you start sight words?
You should start sight words around 5 years old. But first, your child needs to know the alphabet and letter sounds.
They also need strong phonological awareness. Your child needs to be able to hear and apply the sounds in our language in order to effectively read the sight words.
How are the sight words taught?
The Dolch and Fry lists are ordered by frequency. They are not exactly the same because their methodology for choosing the most frequency words varied.
Teachers usually teach the sight words in order of frequency, too. The problem with this children are taught words like “you” and “the” at the same time. This requires more memorization.
But sight words can also be taught by phonics skills. You can check out the sight words sorted by sounds here.
Can I help my child learn sight words at home?
You can definitely help your child learn sight words at home. You don’t need to have a Master’s Degree in Education to teach your child sight words.
There are 5 steps to help your child learn sight words:
- Identify the sight words your child needs to know.
- Decide when and for how long you’ll practice.
- Explain each word.
- Actively engage your child in the practice.
- Review the learned words
Step 1: Identify the sight words your child needs to know.
If your child’s teacher doesn’t provide a list of sight words, you can grab the free sight word list here.
Check off any sight words your child can already read and spell. If your child already knows the word “the,” don’t waste time practicing it.
I recommend practicing just 5-7 words at a time. Depending on your child, you might need to practice as few as 3 or as many as 10 at a time.
Step 2: Decide when and for how long to practice.
Five minutes most days is enough. It’s better to practice for a few minutes a day instead of one marathon session every few weeks.
So think now:
- Who will practice with your child?
- What time of day is going to work best for your family?
- Where is a good place in your home?
- How many minutes will you practice?
Related: Fall Color by Sight Words Worksheets
Step 3: Explain the word.
Make sure you explain how to pronounce the word to your child. Start with saying the word and connect it to the letters that spell those sounds.
Then try to connect the sight word to other words to help your child generalize it.
Here’s an example of an easily decodable sight word – see:
- Say this word is “see.”
- Ask your child to say the word “see.”
- Say it has two sounds: /s/ and /E/.
- The s is easy to decode and the -ee makes the /E/ sound.
- Tell your child that tree and bee also have this same pattern.
Let’s say it’s a tricker word – the:
- Say this word is “the.”
- Ask your child to say the word “the.”
- Count the sounds; /th/ /u/.
- Explain that the /th/ is spelled th and /u/ is spelled with e.
- Say then and they start with the same /th/ sound.
You can also check out these free sample worksheets. Each worksheet set walks parents and teachers through the steps for mapping sight words.
Step 4: Actively engage your child in practice
There is nothing wrong with review sight words with flashcards. Bu there are countless ways to practice sight words.
Here are a few activities:
- Play Memory Match: Write the sight words from your list twice on index cards and turn them over. Your child will practice matching them. (There are also printable flashcards in Sight Word Spell and Read!)
- Swat the Sight Words: Grab a set of sight words, call a word, and have your children swat it with a flyswatter or spatula.
- Dot the Sight Words: Identify the target sight word and dot it with a dot maker.
Step 5: See what your child knows (and start again)
Teachers call this assessment. All you need to do is see if your child can read the sight words again.
Then you can move onto the next set of sight words to practice.
Use Sound-Spelling Word Mapping to Teach Sight Words
Our brains don’t effectively store words as a whole picture. Thus, memorizing high-frequency words isn’t really effective.
So what does work? Phoneme grapheme mapping, or mapping sight words. is a really impactful way to read and spell sight words.
Plus, it’s the fastest and easiest way to teach your child sight words.
Here’s how to do sound-spelling mapping with your child:
- Say the word: “said”
- Count the sounds: 3 sounds (/s/ /e/ /d/)
- Draw three boxes
- Put /s/ in the first box and /d/ in the last box.
- Explain to your child that /e/ is spelled with “ai.”
- Instead of memorizing the whole word, they only need to remember “ai.”
This works because:
- it draws on your child’s phonological awareness,
- reduces the amount to remember,
- is stored more efficiently in the brain.
But what if you don’t actually know how to map the sight words? Your background in English isn’t as strong as you want it to be.
I show you how to map the sight words in the Mapping Sight Words Bundles.
So try sound-spelling mapping with your child. You can also find sound mapping pages in the Super Spell & Read Sight Work printable workbooks.
Each workbook breaks down how to phoneme-grapheme map each tricky sight word.
Spelling Sight Words
Spelling and reading are reciprocal. As children learn to decode better, they can spell better. And as they spell better, they will read better.
So give your child more opportunities to practice spelling high-frequency words:
- Use rubber stamps in kinetic sand to spell the sight words.
- Place sand in a shallow tray and have your child use their finger to write the words.
- Grab the Super Spell & Read Sight Word Spelling printable workbook to give your child more structured practice.
Connecting reading with spelling is a helpful way to teach sight words to your child.
Recapping How to Teach Sight Words
Here’s the summary of how to teach sight words to your child:
- Identify the words or word list they need to learn. Grab a free copy below.
- Decide when and where you will teach sight words. Five minutes a day is great.
- Explain how to say the word, count the sounds, and write the spelling.
- Practice reading and spelling the sight words.
- Start again. Check which words your child learned and which words need more practice.