For most adults, reading is a quick way of learning, whether for pleasure or for some practical purpose. They can read a newspaper or magazine article silently to themselves faster than having someone share the same information with them orally. For these adult readers, almost every word they read has become a sight word. They have stored a huge bank of words that they recognize as soon as they see. If we had to decode every word, reading would take far too long to be worth the trouble.

Even with beginning readers, educators have found that teaching certain words as “sight words”— words to be memorized rather than decoded—can move young readers more quickly toward comprehension of reading material. Once students develop an extensive bank of words that they can recognize on sight, they find reading easier and more meaningful than when they relied primarily on phonics.  And they more readily learn new words.

Lists of sight word for young readers to learn are made up of the most commonly used words, such as “the,” “of,” “every,” “already,” “where,” and “could.”  These words occur so frequently in reading material that knowing them is especially important. That the words occur so frequently also helps readers learn the words. Their memory of the words is reinforced over and over again.

Learning sight words is an important part of reading instruction for all students. The sight word approach also may be the best approach for some students, including those who have cognitive disabilities that interfere with their mastery of decoding. Learning to use sound-letter associations in decoding written words requires skills of inference that may not develop readily in these students. Inability to use decoding skills may slow their reading and distract them so much that they can’t comprehend what they’re reading. For students with significant delays in cognitive or language development, sight-reading instruction can offer success that might not be achieved through phonics instruction.

As with learning all kinds of reading skills, learning sight words is more difficult for some students than for others. For example, developing a sight word vocabulary may be more challenging for students who are new to the English language. English language learners (ELLs) may not have learned the sight words as spoken words before encountering them in print. For these students, sight word learning includes learning the spoken word and what it means as well learning the printed word. For these students and for others who aren’t familiar with the meanings of the words they are encountering, sight word instruction may require repeated practice in looking at the word, hearing it spoken, discussing its meaning with a teacher or paraprofessional, and using the new word in context. The table below provides illustrations of the somewhat different uses of sight-reading instruction with learners who have different needs.



Typically Developing Learners

Learners with Significant Cognitive or Language Disabilities

English Language Learners (ELLs)

Purpose of instruction in sight reading To expand reading vocabulary and fluency To provide early success with reading; to expand oral vocabulary; to expand reading vocabulary and fluency To expand oral vocabulary; to expand reading fluency
Difficulty level, compared to decoding About the same as learning how to decode Easier than learning how to decode About the same as learning how to decode
Common methods of presentation of sight words List or flash cards with common words, frequently repeated in reading passages Flash cards of common words, needed for safety and functioning and for pleasure in reading simple passages List or flash cards of common, useful, and high interest words frequently repeated in reading passages
Reinforcement Intrinsic reinforcement (e.g., increased reading ease and fluency; better comprehension) Extrinsic reinforcement (e.g., frequent and immediate praise or tangible reward on pronunciation or matching of sight word with picture, object, sign, or spoken word) and intrinsic reinforcement (e.g., increased reading ease and fluency) Intrinsic reinforcement (e.g., increased reading ease and fluency; improved oral vocabulary; better comprehension)
Practice Repeated reading of passages with sight words Repeated reading of sight words alone or in simple phrases on flash cards and in classroom, school, home, and community environment Repeated reading of passages with sight words and opportunities to see and hear sight words in the classroom and other environments