Research-based Strategies for Teaching Sight Words

Your child needs to learn sight words but you want to do it the right way? Here are 8 research-based strategies for teaching sight words.

I’m the first to admit I used to be wrong about teaching sight words.

Every September I would stand in front of thirty sets of parents with a list in my hands:

“Your child needs to memorize these sight words. They are called sight words because you can’t sound them out.”

But it never really felt like the best reading strategy to me.

I remember having students memorize words like ‘got’ and ‘had.’  I would think to myself:

“These are completely decodable. Why do we make kids memorize?!”

Now that I have a dyslexic child, I have learned a better approach.  Here are 8 research-based strategies for teaching sight words to your child.

Research-based Strategies for Teaching Sight Words

You probably think teachers learn how to teach sight words in college. We don’t! Teacher colleges don’t do a great job of preparing us to teach the fundamentals of reading.

Unfortunately, theory without evidence is widely practiced in education. And often times students with learning issues pay the price.

There really isn’t much research on how to teach sight words effectively. However, we have loads of other evidence for effective reading instruction and other types of learning.

That information can be applied to learning sight words.

Here are 8 research-based strategies for teaching sight words in your home or classroom:

  1. Teach sight words based on letters
  2. Use explicit instruction
  3. Use word mapping
  4. Teach only a handful of words by memorization
  5. Sort the words by sounds
  6. Incorporate multisensory learning
  7. Color code the words
  8. Start with one-syllable words first

1. Teach Sight Words based on Letters

This might seem like a “no-duh” but as I mentioned above, for years teachers taught sight words by shape. We said that words were like a whole picture to memorize.

Now we know that the brain attends to the letters in sight words just like other words. They aren’t stored as pictures.

Instead, readers pay attention to each letter and the sounds those letters spell (Blevins, Phonics A-Z, 2017, p 173)

2. Use Explicit Instruction

Over the past 40-60 years, many people believed children learn to read just like they learn to talk. If you surround them with good literature, they will just figure it out with ample time to practice.

It hasn’t worked.

So the next research-based strategy for teaching sight words is to teach the words explicitly. Don’t just print a list and send it home. Don’t make flashcards and try to get your child to memorize.

Explicit instruction is an evidence-based practice.  A teacher or parent makes the goal crystal clear and leaves nothing to chance. The student or child understands exactly what they need to do in order to be successful. The parent or teacher models how to read a word completely.

Since some sight words are more irregular, students need to be taught them explicitly. That means this:

Don’t just leave a child to figure it out how to read an irregular word on their own.

What does that look like? You could do this with your child or student:

  • Show your child the word, “the.”
  • Say “the” aloud.
  • Ask your learner to say “the.”
  • Say, “Let’s count the sounds: /th/ /uh/. It has two sounds.”
  • Ask,  “What two letters spell the /th/ sound?”
  • Child responds, “Th spells the /th/ sound.”
  • Ask,  “What letter spells the /uh/ sound?”
  • Child responds, “E spells the /uh/ sound.”

Then give your learner an opportunity to write the word and read it again. You can simply use a whiteboard to do this.

3. Use Word Mapping

Word mapping and sound mapping are short-hand terms for phoneme-grapheme mapping.  Phoneme-grapheme mapping means connecting the sounds to letters.

Instead of looking at letters and trying to match them to sounds, a learner hears a word first. Then the child matches those sounds to spelling patterns.

It is a strategy to promote the process of orthographic mapping.  Research and fMRIs show that children learn to read most efficiently by mapping sounds in language to printed letters and words.

You can grab a free phoneme-grapheme mapping template below.

Similar to the example above, you tell your child a sight word. Let’s use the word “was” in this example.

  • Adult: Say “was”
  • Child: Was.
  • Adult: Place one counter for each sound.
  • Child: /w/ /u/ /z/. It has three sounds (places counters).
  • Adult: Great. Now we’re going to map it. What’s the first sound in was?
  • Child: /w/.
  • Adult: Yes and it’s spelled with the letter w. Please put that in this first box.
  • Child: (puts s magnet or writes the letter w)
  • Adult: What is the middle sound?
  • Child: /u/.
  • Adult: You got it. In was the /u/ sound is spelled with a. This is a tricky part. Please put a in the second box.
  • Child: (Writes “a” in the second box or puts a magnet).
  • Adult: What’s the last sound in was?
  • Child: /z/
  • Adult. Correct. Do you remember what letter spells /z/ most often at the end of a word?
  • Child. Z?
  • Adult: Sometimes s spells /z/ when it comes after a vowel at the end of a word. Please put s it in the third box.
  • Child: (writes the s or places s magnet)
  • Adult: now let’s spell “was’ on the lines and then read it.

You can use this template for any sight word with four sounds or less!

I have whole collection of word mapping worksheets so parents and teachers can efficiently teach sound to spelling mapping.

4. Teach a Handful Prior to using Phonics

Reading Rockets promotes teaching several high-frequency words prior to introducing the rest with phonics. Children will likely need access to these words in order to practice using phonics to decode other words within sentences.

There are the words they suggest children know:

  • the
  • a
  • I
  • to
  • and
  • was
  • for
  • you
  • is
  • of

Then follow your phonics scope and sequence.  Review each of these words within that lesson when you teach the phonics skill.

For example, when you teach your child how to read short i words, make sure to include the word “is.”

5. Sort Sight Words based on Phonics Skills

The next research-based strategy for teaching sight words is to use phonics skills.  Most parents understand the importance of phonics. But the National Reading Panel found out just how important early phonics instruction is.

Phonics had the greatest impact in grades kindergarten and first grade on later independent reading. This doesn’t mean phonics isn’t important in later grades. Instead, it means teachers and parents need to do everything they can to leverage the power of phonics early on.

So help your child learn the sight words based on their phonics skills.  You can grab a list of sight words sorted by sounds in this blog post.

Once your child knows their letter sounds, you can start working on some sight words. You can start with short vowel sound /a/ words like:

  • an
  • am
  • at
  • as
  • and
  • has
  • can

Your child can quickly learn the sound /a/ and learn to decode those words. So there is no reason to memorize these words.

graphic reads sight words by sounds short vowels & Digraphs Bundlr

You can check out the growing bundle of sight word worksheets based on phonics skills. Or grab the short a printable pack here.

6. Incorporate Multisensory Learning

Using multisensory learning helps children learn to associate sounds to letters fast.  Teachers of dyslexic students have been using this approach for almost a century since Dr. Samuel Torrey Orton began the approach.

Those of us with training in the Orton-Gillingham approach know how effective multisensory learning is for all children. It involves more than one sense in order to learn – and all children benefit from more engaging teaching practices.

Multisensory learning includes:

  • Visual: seeing a letter or word
  • Auditory: hearing a sound
  • Tactile or kinesthetic: touching or making a physical motion

Using multiple senses gives more pathways for the information to be stored in the memory permanently.

Some ideas for multisensory learning of sight words:

  • build words with letter magnets
  • air write the words while saying the sounds (not letter names)
  • fill a tray with sand or salt and trace the words with a finger

7. Color Code Sight Words

Another research-based method for teaching is using color coding to learn sight words.

Color coding has been shown to help store information in memory and improve recall. Colors draw attention in order to improve learning.

On these Dot the Dolch Sight Word worksheets, I have my children and students color code the letters in the sight words:

  • Green: completely regularly sound-spellings
  • Yellow: unlearned or tricky sound-spellings
  • Red: irregular sound-spellings

Get Dot the Sight Words here in the Printable Shop. Or find it on Teachers Pay Teachers.

8. Teach One-Syllable Words First

A quick look at the Dolch Sight Words shows that two-syllable words like little, pretty, under, and funny are taught early in kindergarten (pre-primer and primer levels).

This is a mistake. Undoubtedly, children will just memorize those words because they don’t yet have the knowledge of syllables.

Teaching children about the syllable types will help them learn to break words apart and improve reading fluency. So build up your child’s knowledge of one-syllable words.

Wondering what are syllables? This blog post breaks it down for parents with a list of syllables.

Recapping Research-Based Strategies for Teaching Sight Words

Here’s the summary for using research-based strategies for teaching sight words:

  • Theory is used more than research when making a lot of teaching decisions.
  • That can be harmful for students with learning difficulties.
  • Research in education on how to teach and learn effectively can be applied to sight words.
  • Teach children to attend to the individual letters not the whole sight word as a picture.
  • Clearly teach your child what each word is and how the letters spell the sounds.
  • Say the sight word aloud to your child and have them match letters to the speech sounds.
  • A few words are needed to practice reading from the beginning so teach only a handful of words by memorization. Then review those when they come up in phonics skills (like /th/ for the).
  • Instead of learning the words in order, teach them based on sounds, or phonics skills.
  • Don’t just use flashcards. Use multisensory learning that includes seeing, hearing, and feeling.
  • Use red, yellow, and green to color code the known, tricky, and truly irregular parts of words.
  • Skip the two-syllable words like “little” until your child can decode those. Start with one-syllable words.


If your learner is having a hard time learning sight words, know this:

It’s not your fault. It’s not the teacher’s fault. We don’t know what we don’t know.

So use these research-based strategies for teaching sight words to help your child learn faster and for good!

These strategies make learning permanent and your child will be reading in no time!


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