Sight Words: What, When and How
What are Sight Words?
Whether you call them sight words, popcorn words or high frequency words, they are, by definition, “commonly used words that young children are encouraged to memorize as a whole or by ‘sight,’ so that they can automatically recognize these words in print without having to use any strategies to decode.” 
The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists claims that the first 25 most frequent words make up about one-third of all printed material in English, and that the first 100 make up about one-half of all written material. Let that thought sink in. 50%! The obvious advantage of learning sight words is that it can have a powerful impact on student’s reading fluency.
‘Sight Word’ is a bit of a misnomer because it implies that a word is learned simply by seeing it in its complete form. For this reason, flashcards are the most common way teachers will try to ‘drill’ the recognition of given words simply by repetition. If students are developmentally not ready in their spoken or orthographic skills, no matter how hard you may try, the words will not stick in their brains.
One problem with sight words is that many, though not all, lack dependable letter–sound correspondences (of = /uv/ and is = /iz/). Most words are more regular than not, especially in the consonant features. For example, the high-frequency word said is 50 percent regular; what would otherwise be a dependable ai digraph is irregular compared to the pronunciation of words like tail or paint. Nonetheless, it’s important teachers address these irregularities with students rather than avoiding them or assuming that students will eventually ‘pick up’ the differences.
In addition, high frequency words can be abstract, difficult if not impossible to represent using pictures, and especially difficult to understand where meaning may have an inferred understanding through context (something a second language learner doesn’t have the advantage of in early language development.) It can be very elusive to create a clear mental model of words like have and get, both of which can cross several different word choices in a language learner’s native language. Just as complicated is a word like was which refers to a past existential state of being. I remember trying to explain to students that “I win a prize” infers that if I win a game, I will get a prize, whereas, in Japanese, it is akin to saying “I prized a game.”
This is why students of English need to be exposed to the patterns of speech and inferred meaning of sight words early on in oral exercises, chants, and songs. Inevitably, as you move children from decoding individual words to decoding language in connected text, sight words should be a regular part of your ESL program.
When to Teach Sight Words
If you are teaching ESL students with the eventual goal of reading (and you should be), you need to begin thinking about sight words long before students encounter them in writing exercises. Building a vocabulary base that includes high frequency words that is not exclusive to nouns and verbs, contributes to a sense of word and meaning in context. Vocal chants and early Q&A exercises should include sight words in anticipation that these words will be encountered again in written text. Reading story books in class is also important for showing children how you read in English and, where possible, should include picture prompts and word cues so children can participate in the reading of the story.
Before teaching children sight words orthographically, it is necessary that children have a solid foundation of the ABCs, phonemes and understand concepts of word. From there, learning sentence structure and decoding meaning in context should be taught in that order.
In other words, you can’t teach kids the concept of word without first teaching the ABCs. Trying to use flash cards to teach sight words, like visual designs, out of context and with no relationship to connected meaning, will NOT make the words stick nor will they transfer to automatic written understanding. Likewise, expecting a child to write and rewrite a sentence when they can’t yet decode the individual words is not going to eventually impart meaning.
When students understand the ABCs and their associated sounds, can combine those sounds into a concept of word, and are capable of understanding sentence constructs, THAT is the time to begin teaching and exercising sight words. The good news is that many children learn these concepts in their own language at a very young age and have the ability to transfer that understanding to a new language and a new set of rules.
How to Teach Sight Words
There are many ways to strengthen your students’ knowledge and recognition of sight words in text and out of text.
How do you begin to teach sight words? Again, start early by reading to your classes, and importantly, showing kids how you are reading. By simply pointing to each word as you read, you’re teaching them much more than just the words associated to colorful illustrations. You’re also teaching them about print concepts, moving from left to right, top to bottom, and the return sweep. All of these concepts can operate very differently in a child’s native written language.
Anticipating future exercises by building a targeted vocabulary and sentence pattern base is helpful when it comes time to introduce students to orthographic exercises. You will rely on that knowledge base to help them transition to written text and a speech-to-print match.
Keep in mind that eventually you’re going to be taking students beyond decoding words and into the realm of decoding sentences. The reading goals you set for your students should begin long before they start reading and writing.
If you have been teaching phonics and simple CVC words and your kids are ready to start using those words in easy sentences, you’re ready to begin teaching easy sight words. Along with your regular phonics exercises, start throwing sight words into the mix! If you want more ideas for working with flash cards, check out my 50+ Flash Card Activities post.
Writing Phrases and Patterning Mentor Texts
Children can write phrases that include high frequency words that build off patterned mentor (sample) texts. With ESL students, offering prompts and spelling can help children build sentences and understand the importance of the sight words in their placement amongst already learned words from their phonics lessons.
Using flash cards, line up a sentence and have students read the sentence until they are familiar with the order and meaning. Then cover up the sight words or pull them out and have students replace or match the words of the original sentence. This same activity works well as a worksheet with cutting and pasting to replace the missing words.
Matching is also an excellent way to reinforce learned words in out-of-text activities. The pages below, including Bingo, when reduced to their most basic skill, are simply matching activities. But, don’t tell the kids this! They think they’re playing a game or doing a puzzle! When you combine sight word matching with writing, coloring, counting, spinners, dice, random choice, and memory skills, you have activities that will engage and entertain students on a variety of levels.
In this example of an in-text exercise, students use a marker to highlight sight words. Like the sample at the beginning of this post, you can hand out highlighters, choose any random text, and have students highlight the words being learned. This is also a great cool down exercise for the whole class or activity for early finishers!
Pick Up is a super simple activity that keeps students engaged. Ask students to pick up all the words that begin with a particular consonant, vowel, or capital letter. Or have students listen to a spoken sentence and line up the words in order. Sentence Fishing is simply a pick-up type game and kids can’t get enough of it! Remember, when errors are made, it’s a rich opportunity to lead children to helpful conversations so they can articulate why a word doesn’t fit.
Another out-of-text activity for developing sight words is sorting. Have children sort their word cards based on letters, sounds, or key words. Guide students in reflecting on what’s the same and what’s different. Grouping words with their beginning letters and then putting them in alphabetical order is another sorting plus ordering activity that will serve future dictionary work! Remember, always think ahead!
Making sentences is a great way to get kids to review and use learned words to make more orthographic connections. Here, using flash cards not as a means to drill, but a way of exploring new connections gives students a creative way to build on lessons learned. Challenge your kids to see who can make the most surprising sentences!
Word games are a fun way to reinforce sight words and can include I Have/Who Has activities, word search and crossword puzzles, and many board game type games. Introducing and playing these kinds of games in class is important. Students may be playing these kinds of games in their own language, but the only opportunity to do so in English may be in your classroom.
Sight words promote confidence. Because the first 100 sight words represent over 50% of English text, a child who has mastered the list of sight words can already recognize at least part of a sentence. Sight words provide clues to the context and promote reading comprehension.
As you move from ABCs through emergent reader activities, you’ll want to have reading goals in place. As a teacher, it is important to be able to recognize when a student has a command of the sounds of the alphabet, achieves the concept of word, is displaying rudimentary reading ability, and finally, capable of decoding and deriving meaning from connected text. These concepts must be developed in this order to achieve reading fluency. You won’t get there without teaching sight words. The habits that you build into the children’s learning activities will help them to acquire new words more quickly, build on their knowledge base to infer meaning, and progress more confidently in their studies.
If you are interested in more of the same kinds of exercises illustrated in this post, check out my Easy Sight Words worksheets for ESL students. If there are activities that you use in class that are not listed here, help a teacher out and leave a comment!
As always, best of luck in your classes!
Kinney Brothers Publishing
 Ravitch, Diane. (2007). EdSpeak : A Glossary of Education Terms, Phrases, Buzzwords, and Jargon. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, ISBN 1416605754.