Sight Words: What You Need To Know

Feb 13, 2024
Sight words edmentum article

There’s nothing quite like watching a student learn to read successfully, but the process of teaching those fundamental literacy skills is not without its challenges. While budding readers begin to explore new words and sounds to develop their literacy skills, they’re bound to get stuck every now and again.

The trouble comes when readers encounter common words that are difficult to sound out phonetically.

Often referred to as high-frequency words or sight words, they are critical to reading success, and the methods for teaching them have evolved in recent years.

Let’s explore essential questions about sight words to help understand their value in research-based phonics instruction.

Why Teaching Sight Words Are Important

How do sight words fit into evidence-based reading instruction?

Words that appear most commonly in reading and writing are called sight words. There are two main categories of sight words: high-frequency words (and, it, cat) and words that are phonetically irregular, or cannot be decoded with traditional phonics rules, (are, said).

These lists of common words make up an estimated 75 percent of all words in books, and they are essential for a new reader to be familiar with to make it through even the most basic reading practice. They’ve historically been taught through rote memorization and drilling flashcards throughout the early elementary years.

While this method works well for some, it yields poor results for many struggling readers. The science of reading instructional practices present another way forward—one that can better serve all students. 

How To Teach Sight Words

There are hundreds of sight words to learn. For years, teachers took their lists and divided them up into categories based on text frequency, regardless of the phonics rules they may have followed. This meant that students could be learning one at the same time they might be practicing play. There was no phonics connection, and therefore, memorization was the only way forward.

Upon closer inspection, however, many sight words have sound-spelling correspondences, and they can be successfully taught in related phonics-based lessons. For this reason, you now see educators taking their tried-and-true lists and organizing them into phonics-based groupings.

Take the word with, for example that uses the digraph “th.” This sight word might be introduced in the context of a larger “th” digraph lesson, thus building an essential decoding skill and giving students phonics knowledge they can apply to related words with the same sound-spelling correspondence. Other irregular words might still require memorization, but the list of words to apply this approach with is now much shorter and manageable.

Becoming a skilled reader with a huge repertoire of sight words requires knowledge of phonemic segmentation, letter-sound correspondences, and spelling patterns. Essentially, it requires true phonics instruction, and studies in the science of reading are bringing greater success for struggling and advanced readers alike.

What Sight Word Lists are Available?

There is no “official” sight word list, although two of the most widely accepted high-frequency word lists used when teaching sight words to students are likely to sound familiar: The Dolch list and the Fry list.

Dolch Sight Word List

The Dolch list was compiled by Dr. Edward William Dolch in the 1930s through 1940s. The list contains 220 “service words” and 95 “high-frequency nouns” collected from the most frequently used words in children’s storybooks. 

The words are meant to be divided into groups by grade level and are used primarily from pre-K to 2nd grade. Dr. Charles Browne and Dr. Brent Culligan developed the “New Dolch List” in 2020 as a list of high-frequency English words designed to aid English language learners.

Fry Sight Word List

Another more modern version of the original Dolch list, the Fry “1000 Instant Words” list was first developed in the 1950s and then revised in the 1980s by Dr. Edward Fry and further revised in 2000. This list contains 1,000 words from all parts of speech that most commonly appear in reading material.

While each list compiles words from different age-appropriate reading materials, together, they have many words in common. takes the top 100 words from the Dolch list and the Fry list and finds a combined total of 130 unique words; all words on the Dolch 100 list appear on the Fry "1,000 Instant Words" list.

One list is not necessarily better than the other, and ultimately, just as every emerging reader’s journey is unique, the benefits of sticking to one list over another, mixing and matching, or creating your own sight word list will depend on the individual student.

How Can Technology Help in Learning Sight Words?

Online learning programs can be incorporated that leverage the science of reading strategies to teaching sight words.

Consider Exact Path, our K–12 diagnostic-driven, individualized learning program. It’s a powerful resource to diagnose individual learning needs, provide just-in-time instruction, and measure growth over time.

Phonics-driven lessons for early elementary students expressly use the science of reading principles to ensure literacy success. This involves folding in high-frequency word practice and including decodable readers in the context of related phonics concepts.

Want to take some of these new content modules for a spin? Learn more about our K–2 experience and explore content samples.

The Science of Reading and Sight Words

A healthy dose of systematic, explicit phonics instruction helps build the foundation for successful reading and, ultimately, greater academic success across all subject areas. To learn more, check out our article, The “Science of Reading” and What It Means for Your Classroom.

This post was originally published June 2017 and has been updated.

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