How to Teach Sight Words
Sight words are words that children are taught to recognize “on sight”.
There are two main types of sight words: high-frequency words (and, he, go) and words that can’t be sounded out phonetically like (the, once, talk).
Being able to identify sight words at a glance enables learners to read with greater speed, fluency, and confidence.
The most widely used collection of sight words is called The ‘Dolch’ word list, published in 1948 by Edward William Dolch, Ph.D, is a list of 220 words most often found in text passages.
Did you know… Dr. Seuss used the Dolch List to write ‘The Cat in the Hat’!
The Fry Sight Words list is a more modern list of words than the Dolch list and was extended to capture the most common 1,000 words. Dr. Edward Fry developed this expanded list in the 1950s (and updated it in 1980), based on the most common words to appear in reading materials used in Grades 3 to 9. Learning all 1,000 words in the Fry list would equip a child to read about 90% of the words in a typical book, newspaper, or website.
I put the Fry list in the description below.
You’ll also see me wearing this T-shirt with the most common 100 words. It can be a useful reminder for students and used in lessons. But it is in capital letters, whereas students learn with small letters.
When it comes to teaching sight words, repetition is king. Flashcards are useful, but it is also important to use fun activities that encourage young students to learn.
So here are 10 Sight Words Activities:
Bean Bag Toss
Introduction: In this activity, students toss bean bags. It is an enjoyable, yet effective activity for younger learners. Note that toss is to throw with an ‘underarm’ motion, the opposite of pitch as in baseball.
Activity: Place sight words on the floor. Say a word and two competing students should try to get the bag as close as possible to it. The one that gets it the nearest, wins a point.
A variation is where words have different points attributed to them depending on the number of letters in the word, or the ones furthest away get the most points. Students must nominate a word before tossing and if they land on it, they get those points. The team with the most points wins.
Feed the monster
Introduction: First take a box and decorate it to look like a monster or a dragon, a crocodile or a shark, something with a large mouth.
Activity: Write a set of sight words on strips of paper or let the students copy the words themselves, giving the students practice and saving you the hassle. Let the students exchange their sight words and check if their classmates have them check the spelling. Then let them take turns to ‘feed the monster’ by spelling and reading the word out loud. Let them go alphabetically.
Introduction: Reading Race is a proven activity guaranteed to grab the attention of the students.
Activity: Use your phone’s stopwatch, but preferably a timer or minute glass for all the students to see. Students must try to read as many words or part of a story as fast as possible before time runs out. They can get very competitive, so remember to encourage students who struggle who may feel disappointed if they don’t do as well as their friends.
So let the students compete not so much against each other, but against the clock by writing the reading times of all the students on the whiteboard. Allow them to do “perfect reading” against the clock and also “speed reading” where you allow for imperfections in the spirit of the game. Alternatively, especially in the case of big classes, put the students in pairs. Their friends count how many sight words they can read. Go through it repeatedly to allow them to improve on their scores.
Swat the Word
Introduction: Young learners enjoy this activity as it combines TPR with learning and memorizing sight words.
Activity: Write the sight words on cards or post-it notes and then, depending on the class setup and the number of students, place the cards on desks, a big table, or fix them on the whiteboard. Put the students in in pairs or groups and hand each a fly swatter or something similar. Line the competing teams up and a member of each team has to go slap the correct word as you call the sight words out. Alternatively, place the word cards on the floor and students must step on the words when you call them out.
Sight Word Songs
Introduction: Many people don’t understand that learning a language starts with passive skills. Children first listen, then say words, reading and writing come later. For young learners, listening to sight word songs is a fun way to learn these high-frequency words. Sight words help reading flow.
Activity: Use rhymes, chants and songs to help learners pronounce and memorize sight words. Music has both a behavioral and neural effect on people, which is why chants, nursery rhymes and songs are important in the language development of young learners. It teaches pronunciation and intonation patterns, and with repetition builds memory capabilities and inferencing skills, both when encountering new words and in reading comprehension. A great YouTube channel for sight words combining systematic phonetics with music is that of Jack Hartman – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIZjrcG9pW0Scavenger Hunt
Introduction: Adapt the game of Scavenger Hunt for class to teach sight words.
Activity: Hide or place cards with sight words all around the classroom. Ask the students to search around to find all the words. See who can find the most. This activity can be expanded on by asking students to copy the words on their own sheet of paper, or give them a specific checklist of words to find.
Sight Word Map
Introduction: Another TPR exercise to help students memorize Sight Words while having fun in class.
Activity: Write the words on paper plates or cards. Place the word cards on the floor in a pattern. Next, line the students up. Say a word out loud and the student should step or hop on it. As an extension, place a beginning and an end. Students have to go from one side to the other by saying the word before stepping on it.
As an alternative, let young learners play hopscotch from word to word while the teacher or a student from an opposing team calls the words.
Introduction: A daily morning message as part of classroom routine can be used to teach sight words. When learning is practical, students are more likely to see the value and internalize lessons.
Activity: At the start of class, give students some text with a message. Then, show them a list of words that they have to find inside the message, and circle them. This exploration is a fun way to challenge learners and make learning sight words into a game.
Sight Word Scrabble
Introduction: Using both the whole word method teaching sight words, using Scrabble utilizes the systematic phonics approach, where students spell the individual letters of words practicing basic decoding techniques.
Activity: Give students letters to use, then show them a list of words. The students construct words using the individual letters and check it off. The advantage of this activity is that students have control over their own learning. Giving them a list helps them set a target of words to learn autonomously.
Exit Ticket Reading
Introduction: Similar to the morning message and as part of classroom routine for young learners, use exit ticket reading to reinforce target language, in this case, sight words.
Activity: Write a couple of sight words on the whiteboard and in order to leave class after the lesson, students have to write the words down. It could either be on the board or in their own books.
Write two or three words if the students find it too easy. The next step when they can do that is to put the words on the door, and the students have to repeat them before exiting. Watch out for students that just try to memorize the words. You can do this by pointing at the words randomly to be read.