All About Learning Sight Words

I was wondering if you have suggestions for helping a student in the first grade learn sight words.  My son’s teacher sent home quite a long list of words that he needs to be able to read and write before the end of the year.  We have been practicing some of them and I am sure that he works on them at school, but he is finding it hard to remember them.  Now that we are passed the half way point in the school year, I am getting nervous that he won’t be able to pass a sight word test.  I want him to be as strong as possible in grade 2.  Can you help us?


You are not alone.  I have seen many children have problems with learning sight words.  But no matter the perceived difficulty, you need to help your son with these words as they are crucial to learning to read.  Sight words fill in the blanks and are like glue that links together words into sentences that make sense.  New readers will be using phonics, phonemic awareness[1], and clues from a book’s pictures to help them figure out text.  But knowing the sight words creates islands of certainty for a beginning reader.  A solid core of sight words creates automaticity while reading.  Knowing sight words increases confidence and moves a child forward in reading and writing.  If they know basic sight words (those common words like and, the, see, go, etc.) it enables them to catch on and decode much faster.  

So what can you do to help?  First give an informal reading and writing test to see how many sight words your child knows, and which words he needs to work on.  Take the words that he knows and put them on cards on the refrigerator or in his room where they can be read during the day to be sure they become automatic.  Add to this list as your child learns each new word.  Continue to review all words every day. 

A child will often learn better when he or she is having fun.  A fun way to work with sight words is to utilize lower case magnetic letters.  If you don’t have a magnetic board, a cookie sheet works very well (not all cookie sheets are magnetic but most of them are).  Put the letters for the word you want to work with on the board.  For example, if you are working on the word the, say, “This is the word the.”  Have him look at the word and draw his finger slowly under the letters as he reads the word the.  Mix up the letters and say, “Make the word the.”  Do this many times after each time he makes the word have him draw his finger slowly under the word as he says the word.  Follow this procedure for other sight words.  Mix them up.  Don’t forget lots of praise.  

A chalkboard or white board is another useful tool.  Have your child write the sight word you are working on.  Have him write it big, write it tiny, write it here (point to one of the corners of the board), write it in red, etc.. 

So you get the idea.  There are a number of other creative (i.e. fun) ways to learn sight words.  Here are some:

 Paint the words.

Use pudding or shaving cream to finger paint the words.

Use alphabet cereal or crackers to spell and eat the words.

Make Rainbow Words -Write them using different color markers.

Do some Bean/Pipe or Pick Writing – Use black beans, pipe cleaners or toothpicks to spell the words and glue them onto index cards.

Make Stamp Words – Use letter ink stamps to make words.

Make Sand Words – Use white glue to write the word then sprinkle with sand.

Make Word Rubbings – Take your Sand Words and make word rubbings by placing a piece of paper over your Sand Word and color until the word appears.

 Although repetition is required to succeed, change helps speed up and increases success.  Mix up the different exercises listed above, or come up with some of your own to keep learning fresh and fun ( if you come up with an exercise that seem to work particularly well, please share it in the comments section following this post).  As always, be positive and encouraging.  With your diligent and creative encouragement, your son’s sight words will soon take over the ‘fridge.   


[1] See my prior blog on phonemic awareness.

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8 Comments + Add Comment

  • Hello again! My sight word-related question is should they be exclusively taught above phonics? I see the importance of these base words being learned by repetition, but my son’s K-5 teachers ONLY use sight words. For the first month of school, we changed nothing. Christopher had been working with me at home with phonics for over a year. It wasn’t until he STOPPED trying to sound words out that we decided to go back to our phonetic pronunciations and lessen his ‘dependence’ on the sight words. His teachers still focus on nothing else, as far as reading goes, and Christopher has become the only child in his class to read above and beyond their level. I feel this significant difference is due to the way he gets taught at home. He brings home a new spelling list every Friday, and by Saturday he knows them all. He is an incredibly bright child, and works hard for all his achievements. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to have two totally different spelling and reading lessons going on in his day: one at school and the other at home, almost like we are going behind the teacher’s back to help him. I don’t know how to tell her (without underwriting her authority and profession) that I simply know what works for him. This is not an egotistical or motherly statement, but simply a factual one based on countless hours spent working with him over the last three to four years. I love the ideas above, and will use them happily, but in the meantime, am I doing the right thing by continuing to teach him an alternative path to reading? I feel confident that the phonetic exercises work better for him, or I would never question the methods of a licensed professional.

  • Children in first grade should not be given lists of sight words to memorize. They should be learning to decode (sound out) and encode (write) regularly spelled words, NOT MEMORIZE THE VISUAL APPEARANCE OF WORDS. First graders should be learning to identify the sounds in words they say and link letters to those sounds. This is called phoneme awareness and phonics, and these are the critical skills for becoming a good reader. Your first grader should read words like GO and SEE by knowing the sounds that those letters stand for, and sounding out the words. As he does this often, his brain will start to automatically recognize the words. This will enable him to sound out and read or write any regularly spelled word independently. He will not have to visually memorize lists of words, except for those few that are “outlaw words” (don’t follow the rules). If he is not learning phoneme awareness and phonics at school, teach him at home. Try asking him to read some nonsense words like MUN or SAF. If he can’t do this, ask his teacher whether she is teaching him to sound out words. If you want him to be a good reader in second grade, teach him these skills NOW yourself. There’s lots of good information on the web about how to become aware of the sounds in words and link those sounds to letters. The suggestions above about writing and painting the words are good suggestions, but make sure he is saying aloud the sound of each letter as he writes it. Bravo to Randi-Willis-Young who wrote the comments above and took on the responsibility to teach his child correctly!

  • A balanced approach, of course, is best. Students do need to know sight words but also need to have phonemic awareness and phonics skills. While students who cannot read many words in a sight word list are generally not yet effective readers, learning the sight words in isolation is perhaps the hardest task. Students may learn best by learning the sight words in context of larger text or even short phrases.

  • This was just the post I needed to read today – I was trying to think of ways to teach sight words this year, and your ideas are great! Thanks for sharing!

  • Great post Maggie!We have a 5yo and a 3yo and we’ve taken to putting everyday words around the house on their actual item. Like ‘Door’ on the door, and so on. I think at the young age as you stated, making the process fun is what it’s all about. Our boys have short attention spans and if there’s no fun, there’s no attention. Great advice!

  • I used technology and traditional books to teach my special needs kid.

    1. Use the sightword buddy tool here to check what he knows/doesn’t know.
    2. Find the books that has the words so he can read instead of rote memory. Dr. Suess books such as go dog go etc.. are good.

    Check out the tool and other apps that help here.

  • I am a Souns (www.souns.org) mom and my son, 3, beautifully codes and decodes words phonetically (of course not all words in English can be read strictly with phonics). The guide is available free on the site and the materials are beautiful but you really could use any single (loose) letters (even written on your child’s hand or on an index card.) This of course for kids younger 0-5.

    Kudos to the mom that worked with her own child, following her own child’s leads above! Yay mom.

    I recently found another service called literary head and it uses really awesome visual aides (as in BEAUTIFUL ART GRAPHICS). I’m using those for sight words and vocubulary expansion.

    GREAT suggestions on the post. I love the sand letter rubs. One thing I do with parents I help is that we dance and sing through their lists. Sometimes in couples, sometimes in circles. Surprisingly enough because they have to memorize while keeping a beat and moving they actually have to pay even more attention and end up remembering more words.

    Happy studying!

  • Hey Maggie! When my DD was three we started putting all the sight words and a few small nouns and verbs on flash cards. We would practice until she recognized them all. Once she was pretty familiar with most of them, we would make sentences out of the cards and she would read them. Example: The red car is big. Now that she is six, she is reading chapter books :0)

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