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What are "Sight Words"?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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”Sight words” is the term for words that readers should recognize instantly. Recognition is important because sight words are so frequently used—making up, by some estimates, 50 to 75 percent of all words that children are likely to encounter. It is also important because many of them do not sound as they are spelled, making them difficult to sound out using knowledge of phonics. Having the sight words within his or her repertoire gives the child a better chance to grapple with more difficult and infrequent words without losing the sense of what is being read.

The sight words include commonly used words—words that are ubiquitous and important to understanding. Two lists that help educators and parents identify these words and give them the attention they deserve are the Dolch List of Basic Sight Words and Fry’s 300 Instant Sight Words. Both lists are available on the National Institute for Literacy website.

The Dolch List, by E. W. Dolch, includes 220 words in decreasing order of frequency that account for the proportion of our language quoted above. The top ten words from the Dolch list as published in Locating and correcting reading difficulties by J. Shanker and E. Ekwall in 1998 are:

  • the
  • to
  • and
  • he
  • a
  • I
  • you
  • it
  • of
  • in

Fry’s Instant Words is actually a list by E. B. Fry, J. E. Kress, and D. L. Fountoukidis and was published in The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists, 3rd edition in 1993. The list is divided into hundreds and is in frequency order (although it is reordered alphabetically in some republications). the Fry List gives the top ten words as:

  • the
  • of
  • and
  • a
  • to
  • in
  • is
  • you
  • that
  • it

You can see that in both cases the description of sight words is apt, and that children would benefit by being able to read these words easily.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By StarJo — On Feb 17, 2013

I knew a lot of sight words before I started school. My mother read to me from the time I was a baby, and she did a lot of work with me before I even went to kindergarten.

I know I had it easier than many kids when it came to reading. There were kids in my class who couldn't even pronounce the most basic sight words.

I know they would have benefited greatly if their parents had read to them like mine had. Even if a parent isn't sure what all the sight words will be when their child starts class, just teaching them a few of the basics will go a long way.

By Perdido — On Feb 17, 2013

@giddion – No, they aren't all one syllable words. My daughter's 1st grade sight words did include a lot of one syllable words, but a few two syllable words and even a couple of three syllable words were listed, too.

Sure, they start out with the basics, but they slowly move on to the longer words. My daughter started out with words like “the” but then progressed to “away, above, mother, father” and even “grandmother.”

By giddion — On Feb 16, 2013

I see that all of the sight words mentioned in this article only have one syllable. Do all sight words only have one, or are some of them two or three syllable words?

By icecream17 — On Sep 17, 2010

Cupcake15-Learning kindergarten sight words takes a lot of repetition. Often children perform a series of related activities in order to master the word. A fun sight word activity is sight word bingo.

Sight word bingo is great because you read the word aloud and they have to recognize the word and place a chip over the word.

The excitement of the game allows the children to learn and have fun at the same time. Also, putting the sight words on index cards all over the house helps keep the kids focused on the sight words.

By cupcake15 — On Sep 17, 2010

Greenweaver- I think sight word activities also help children develop writing skills. Often children have journaling activities on a daily basis and draw from their own of these words in order to build adequate sentences.

Writing is probably the hardest skill to teach young children because writing involves an inherit ability to read which children do not begin to master until about third grade.

These early literacy skills are important foundations for lifelong learning.

By GreenWeaver — On Sep 17, 2010

Learning sight words is important because not all words respond to phonics rules and can not be sounded out.

Most Fry sight words and Dolch sight words offer a list of first grade sight words, second grade sight words, and third grade sight words.

Many students learn to read well with a combination of phonetic instructions coupled with a few sight words every week.

Usually these words are prominently displayed around the classroom so that the children will eventually learn them.

Teaching sight words are important because these words are often the most frequently reoccurring words in most children’s literature.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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