How to Teach Sight Words

August 7, 2013
Written by:
Guest Author


English contains over a million words – more than any other language. Out of that vast number, there is a very small, unique group made up of only 100 commonly used words. They are words such as “the”, “is”, and “what” and are often referred to as “non-content” words because they seem to lack any clear meaning. (They are also referred to as “little,” “high frequency,” “function,” and “sight” words.)

In addition to their being very frequent, most of these words cannot be “sounded out.” Due to the dominance of phonics-only reading instruction, these words are labeled as “exceptions” and they are given minimal teaching time. Children are expected to learn them by sight (that is, by looking at them and recognizing them, without any attempt to sound them out.) Often, little is done other than to show the word and tell the child what it is “saying.” For many children, this is not enough, with the result that their reading of these critical words is laden with error.

All this overlooks an amazing fact. 100 or so of these words occupy the majority of any page of print you will ever see in the English language — regardless of whether the book is for a child or an adult.

In the 2 previous sentences, the bolded “non-content” words add up to 25 of 40 words, or 63% of the total. In fact, these words occupy, on average, 60% or more of all text.

In addition to their dominant presence, these words are also essential to the meaning and grammar of any sentence. For instance consider these two sentences:

The boy walked the dog.

The boy walked to the dog.

The introduction of the word “to” completely changes the meaning of the sentence.

These words also help to identify nouns (the, a), identify verbs (is, to), create tenses (had, was, will, would) negate (not, but), define singular and plural (many, one) and so on. So teaching these words correctly gives children incredible insight into English grammar and meaning.

Think about it: if you teach children to decode and understand the usage of these one hundred words, they will be able to read 60% of the words they see and it will help them see the relationships between the other words! Once children master these words, they have an incredible key that unlocks the door to reading – and comprehension. The importance of this to reading instruction cannot be overstated. These words are amazingly powerful and that’s why at Reading Kingdom, we call them “super sight words.”

So how should parents who are helping their children master reading deal with super sight words? They should teach them thoroughly so that a child gains real mastery of them. The key to achieving this goal is accurate writing (spelling) via memory. That is, a child writes the word when the model is not in view.

You can do this by creating simple sentences that a child reads. By using sentences, you will automatically be using many “sight words.” In addition, you will be giving your child the opportunity to deal with words in context—a key to meaningful reading.

After showing the sentence and having your child read it, turn it over and then dictate the sentence. If there is an error, immediately stop your child and take away the paper. Then you show the model again and repeat the process. In other words, the writing of the sentence has to be fully accurate, starting with the first word.

It’s best to make sentences using words that your child is having difficulty with. Here are several sentences that can be used as models.  (By way of example, the words highlighted in red would be the word that a child is having difficulty with.)

The cats were not sitting. They do not like doing that.

Many kids can swim, but none of them can fly.

From now on, all of the toys have to be in boxes.

Who was that man in the car? No one knows who he is.

Do any of the boys have time to help us?

Many birds can fly but there are some who cannot do that.

Where are most of the boys going to play?

The kids will go swimming after they have had something to eat.


If you want a list of those words to help guide your efforts, click here to download our Recommended Top 100 Sight Words.