Struggling to figure out how to teach sight words? Have you got your sights set on increasing your students’ sight word recognition this year? Teaching sight words doesn’t have to be the complicated and confusing process that everyone makes it out to be.
They just don’t remember them. I’ve taught them a hundred times. They can’t do it.
Sound familiar? These are the go-to responses of a lot of educators.
You’re not alone. Believe it or not, thoughts like these are common when you’re just starting out, and even if you’re a veteran teacher. We all have fears about our own teaching practices and secretly worry that it’s us.
But those fears are definitely holding you back from finding sight word instruction that works.
The truth is that it’s not you. It’s the fact that there has been a lack of information, consistency, and knowledge when it comes to sight word instruction. Fortunately, that’s changing as we learn more about how the brain works when it comes to reading!
There’s a lot of research and data, and I can’t wait to share it all with you.
So take a deep breath and settle in to learn 10 research-based and fun strategies for teaching sight words!
What is a sight word?
Before we get into the teaching strategies, let’s talk a little bit about sight words themselves.
First, “sight words” is actually the incorrect term for what we’re talking about. High frequency words is the correct term – meaning the words that students are going to see most often (or with the highest frequency) in text. “Sight words” means something completely different when it comes to the science of reading and brain research.
Sight words is a term that actually refers to the words that our brain knows automatically: as if by sight. So “sight words” are the words a person has permanently mapped in the brain and knows instantly (on sight).
However, because these two terms have been used so interchangeably in curricula and instruction, “sight words” is used much more often than “high frequency words.”
I’m not going to dive in too deeply with that here, though. If you’d like to read more about the research on the difference between sight words and high frequency words, click here to for the blog post I wrote on the topic.
Why do we teach “sight words” and high frequency words?
High frequency words, the words most commonly seen within text, are words that students must know in order to read the words on the page. These words are common, everyday words. Some are phonetic, meaning they can be sounded out easily. Others are more difficult and must be practiced with intentionality to really solidify that word into memory.
By focusing on high frequency words intentionally, you’re providing “exposures” to the word that your students’ brains need in order to remember it permanently (which is when it becomes a sight word!). Choosing activities, providing practice, and teaching these words explicitly means that your students will learn more words faster.
How to teach sight words – the strategies
#1. Multi-sensory learning activities
Start by introducing the words. Say them out loud together. Spell them. Then practice reading, writing, building, and creating them using multi-sensory techniques.
Multi-sensory techniques incorporate the use of all the senses (touch, taste, sight, hearing, movement, etc). By doing this, you’re helping their brains build new neural pathways because you’re using their senses and experiences to make the words memorable.
Some examples of multi-sensory sight word activities include:
- Using fingertips to spell them on a rough surface (sandpaper, building bricks, a textured wall, etc)
- Using dough to shape the letters of the word
- Shaving cream in a sandwich bag as a writing board
- Tearing bits of paper and gluing in the shape of the letters in the word
This is my favorite of all the strategies because any multi-sensory activity you choose is just plain fun!
Interested in more multi-sensory activities? Download my Multi-Sensory Sight Word Strategies Guide here!
#2. Introduce and teach each word
Your students won’t learn new words by osmosis. Just having the words on the wall in your classroom isn’t enough.
Be intentional about teaching each word and providing explicit practice in a structured routine
Here’s an example of how you can introduce each word:
- Say the word to the students and have them repeat it.
- Turn and say the word to a partner.
- Spell the word for your students, and then point to each letter and have them spell it too.
- Write the word, saying each letter, and repeat the word when you’re finished spelling. Then have students do the same.
- Scramble up the letters and have students put them in the right order and read the word.
- Read some short sentences with the word. Give it some context!
By doing this routine or something similar, you’re allowing your students to experience the word, its letters and sounds, and build those neuron connections by writing and unscrambling the word to help solidify it in long-term memory.
Will your students know this word as soon as you do this routine? Some will, most will not – but you’ve given them the first few crucial exposures that lay the foundation for long-term word recognition.
Pro Tip: research shows that it takes an average of 10-12 exposures to a word before it becomes permanent in long-term memory. This number will increase for students struggling with letter-sound relationships. Be patient and know that you are indeed building new connections between the synapses in their brains!
#3. Remember to continue to practice the words
You may be thinking to yourself, “I don’t have time to keep reviewing words, but if you don’t, you won’t have students who can read, spell and decode the word.
Instead, make sure you incorporate known words into the extra minutes in your day.
Use the time standing in line for specials or lunch to practice words.
Have each student read a word when they come to your desk.
Wear a word on your lanyard and randomly ask students to read it.
You will thank me later when your students show fluency and automaticity!
Pro Tip: Talk with your grade level during a PLC or meeting about how they incorporate words into their day. You’ll have a million new ideas in no time.
#4. Always, Always, Always Connect Sight Words to Phonics
For every word you teach your students, practice breaking the word down into individual sounds. Explore the letter-sound relationships in the word.
By doing this, your students will be able to not only understand the makeup of the word you’re teahcing, but they’ll also solidify and build on letter-sound relationships as a whole. This will help build automaticity and phoneme-grapheme connections for your struggling readers especially.
Here’s how you can do this with a new word:
- Tap out the sounds: use your fingertips to isolate and tap each sound you hear in the word. Have your students do this with you. Count them. How many sounds are there?
- Look at the written word. Tap under each letter as you say each sound in the word. Notice when something seems out of the ordinary and talk about that with your students.
- Identify any part that may be “irregular” in the word and talk through it with your students. For example: “We heard the sound /e/, but when we look at the word, it’s spelled with the letter(s)…”
#5. Use color
Teachers aren’t the only ones who love colors!
Your students can use color to differentiate between separate letters and keep track of where they’re looking when they’re reading the word.
So add color to the word!
Write each letter of the word in a different color. Use colored construction paper and put a different color behind each letter. Or just use crayons and let your students write in their favorite Crayola colors. All of these are easy ways to add color and visual stimulation to learning a new word.
#6. Upgrade Your Word Wall
Do you know you could polish up your word wall immensely by turning it into a sound wall? What are you waiting for?
Consider this your official permission slip to dig into sound walls and how beneficial they are.
Make new words easier for your kiddos to locate, read, and use by putting them on a sound wall. Not only will this increase their ability to identify the beginning sounds in words, but it will help them see what that sound looks like and give them a scaffold to using that word in speech and writing.
#7. Include actual reading
Our end goal in figuring out how to teach sight words is to get our kiddos accurate and automatic when they see these words in print. But to do that, we also have to include print!
Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the activities of the word that we run out of time or just don’t read these words in a meaningful way. And by meaningful, I mean in context.
Make sure to include practice sentences, phrases, or short passages that have the target word in there frequently so students are exposed to the word in context.
We don’t read words in isolation, so we shouldn’t just teach them in isolation!
#8. Use related words
Identify ahead of time words that your students already know that are similar in spelling or pronunciation.
By using these words to help introduce a new word, your students will be able to map this new word in their long-term memory because they have something to connect it to.
For example, if you’re teaching the high frequency word “there,” you can make connections between similar words, like “the,” “them,” and “these,” if they’re words your students know.
The similarities in spelling and pronunciation will help your students connect current knowledge of phonics and spelling patterns to the new word.
#9. Don’t forget repetition!
This point related back to #3, making sure you incorporate practice. Without repeated practice your kiddos can’t solidify those neural connections and store this word in long-term memory.
Keep discussing the word, its features, and tying old words into new instruction.
This. is called spaced repetition, and is well-documented by researchers to improve long-term memory of the word.
Use opportunities. to continue to practice the word in the future, like:
- use it as a spelling connection with a future new word
- keep it in rotation during small group instruction
- point it out and talk about it in text over the next week after teaching it
- have students find it in a book at home and add a picture to Class Dojo
There are a million simple ways to continue. to talk about the words you teach, you just have to make it a habit to do so.
#10. Always have fun!
Achieving sight word recognition can be hard. This is why it’s essential to keep up the momentum and good humor by loving new words!
If you love talking about new words, your enthusiasm will shine through to your students. Celebrate their wins in remembering new words, and see the joy in knowing how to teach sight words!
There you have it!
Did you find these tips helpful? Share your top tip to stay motivated on the path to teaching sight words in the comments below!
If you still need additional resources, get in touch here. There are no silly questions, and I am always happy to hear from teacher friends!