Different Strategies for Teaching Sight Words to Beginning Readers

January 27, 2011, Angie Barnett

Different Strategies for Teaching Sight Words to Beginning Readers

By guest writer, Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist

Most reading teachers place some importance on the teaching of sight words. However, what each teacher means by sight words varies more than the flavors at the local ice cream parlor. For clarity, reading specialists have defined two types of “word attack” skills: word identification and word recognition. Sight words are classified on the word recognition side of the coin. Some teachers consider sight words high frequency reading words and trot out Fry or Dolch word lists. These words consist of those most frequently found in basal reading series. “By the end of second grade, your child must have memorized the top 200 words.”

Other teachers see sight words as high utility spelling words. You can spot these teachers by their prominently displayed “No Excuse” spelling words on a colorful bulletin board. Thanks to Rebecca Sitton, these collections of words are the words that children most often use in their beginning writing. “By the end of second grade, your child must have mastered the spelling of these words in their writing–no excuses!”

Still, other teachers understand and teach sight words as word family (rimes) words. A rime is a vowel and final consonants in one syllable, such as “ick.” The rime usually follows an initial consonant, e.g. “t,” or consonant blend, e.g. “tr,” to form words, e.g., “tick” or “trick.” Teachers using rimes have their students memorize what these chunks of words look and sound like and then apply these to other starting consonants (called onsets) to recognize or say new words. “By the end of second grade, your child must know every one of these 79 word families with automaticity.” Get a comprehensive list of rimes and terrific learning activities Word Families (Rimes) Activities.

The last group of teachers view sight words as Outlaw Words. That’s right… stick ‘em up, cowboy! These words break the law, that is they break the rules of the alphabet code and are non-phonetic. Words such as the and love are Outlaw Words because readers can’t sound them out. Unfortunately, many of our high frequency and high utility words happen to be non-decodable. Linguists tell us that these are holdovers from our Old English roots.

So Which Sight Words Should We Teach?

Although reading research clearly supports systematic explicit phonics as the most efficient instructional methodology, as a reading specialist I support a Heinz 57® approach to sight word practice.  Although not a substitute for explicit phonics instruction, memorizing key sight words does make sense to promote reading automaticity. And, as a bonus, parents can be helpful partners in practicing sight words with their children. Although oftentimes well-intentioned parents frequently do more harm than good when they teach their children to blend improperly (think “buh-ay-nuh-kuh” sound-out for bank), practicing sight words is almost foolproof.

For older students, say second-graders or reading intervention students (think Response to Intervention Tiers I and II), these Outlaw Words and Rimes Assessments with recording matrix provides teachers with the data they need to effectively differentiate instruction.


Reading Horizons integrates sight word instruction throughout its explicit phonics (structured literacyreading curriculum.


About the Author:

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is an educational author, presenter, reading specialist, and middle school teacher. Mark has taught in the elementary, middle school, high school, and community college settings. Mark’s English-language arts/reading resources help teachers differentiate instruction for the diverse needs of their students. Mark is the author of the comprehensive series, Teaching Reading Strategies. Visit his blog at: http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/


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