Sight Words

17 Reading Strategies for Elementary Sight Words to Boost Your Reader

Reading strategies for elementary (and any age for a new reader!) always include learning the basic sight words and high-frequency words of the English language.

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If you are a parent or teacher just starting out, you may be thinking, "What are these sight words, why does my kid need them, how do I teach them, and is there a list?"  

Here are a few tips (17!) on reading strategies for elementary sight words on how to teach them, what they are, why they are important, and all you need to know to boost your reader.

Note: the first 4/5 give you a general background of and definition for sight words so that you can know what you are teaching, doing and talking about.  The rest of the tips give you actionable steps you can take to boost your reader and teach in the best way, and are reminders of how to go about solidifying gains made for sight word reading in your student.

These teaching tips are important for all new readers, as well as for parents or educators who want to know how to teach sight words to struggling readers. Let's get to it!

1. So, what are sight words anyway? Understand what sight words are before you begin teaching.

Sight words, like their name implies, are short beginning words that readers learn "by sight" as a whole word, instead of reading the word by decoding with phonics and sounding out rules.

Even though many high frequency words CAN be decoded, some words can be taught by memorization even before the phonics rules of that word are instructed to help a student along with fluency and reading.

When teachers talk about sight words in early elementary, they are usually speaking of a list of 100 high frequency words that children are expected to know and be able to read on sight by the end of a school year. 

2. Know where sight words are derived from and how important they are for early learners.

There are two good reasons for children to learn the most high frequency short words in the beginning of their learning-to-read years.

  1) Knowledge of short, easy, and often-used words in text helps a child early on with fluency to understand the flow of text and the feel of sentences, which in turn may help with comprehension.

  2) Having a feel for this fluency in reading can provide the child with an early sense of success and encourage additional learning to make strong readers. Some words (although not many - some call these "heart" words) that do not follow the usual rules of phonics that are memorized don't need to be a stumbling block.

Common sight word lists were comprised after the "whole language" philosophy of reading instruction, such as the well-known "Fry" lists or "Dolch" lists. Controversy abounds in regard to the two philosophies of instruction ("whole language" vs phonics teaching). Regardless of which side you may land on, I believe strongly that instructors should:

3. Understand that sight words work in tandem with phonics knowledge and skills.

Learning a small group of words by sight is fine for early fluency and a kick-start for comprehension and general reading, but phonics should absolutely be the backbone for leading a child to be a great reader. Both must work in tandem and be "tweaked" for the individual according to how the child best learns.

Work on both, and eventually you'll find success for your reader. Don't just let your student memorize all the words they ever know, however, because at some point, in order to be a strong, literate reader (as well as a strong speller), he or she must need to know phonics and have word decoding skills.

4. Know why they are called Dolch Sight words and Fry Sight Words.

Wondering why they are called "Fry words" or "Dolch words"? Dolch words are a list of high frequency words that in 1948 were published by Edward William Dolch. This list contained 220 words of all different parts of speech that were meant for beginning readers to know "by sight" for early reading.

In 1996, Dr. Edward Fry expanded upon the Dolch list with a more enhanced 1,000 word list for students to know. He broke the list down in 100's, with 100 specific words needed to be known by First Grade, then another 100 by Second, and so on. 

5. Which list should I use?

This question may be answered by your child's learning environment. If your student is in a group learning setting (public or private, etc), go with whatever your child's teacher is doing. Don't give your child a separate list to tackle when he or she is working so hard on the list at school. The Dolch and Fry lists are very similar and only have a few word differences. The result will be the same for general reading purposes. 🙂

If you are at home teaching, my personal recommendation would be to go for the Fry list of words since it is more comprehensive and you can move forward with it, especially if you need to do so with a struggling reader in the upper grades. My book "How to Read: a Kick-Start for Beginners of Any Age" contains all the first 100 of the Fry words, but with many of the Dolch words integrated as well.

6. Understand your child's learning style before you get started.

This will be necessary when you are deciding each step in the T.P.Q process described below. Each person has a predominate learning style, such as visual, physical, aural, verbal, logical, social or solitary learning preferences. Some children react differently with different body-type learning (hands-on, or tactile, visual, or by hearing). Know your student and alter your teaching method to accommodate for success.

You'll also need to have a grasp on what level your child is at. If your student has a tendency to struggle with sounds and letters, you may need to engage him with multiple levels of activities for words in order for him to learn sight words. If you have an advanced reader, eager to go on to the next step, don't bog her down with too many activites when she is ready for new words. If she is ready, just keep giving her new words!

7. Use the 3-Step Process for Teaching Sight Words that I like to call "T.P.Q.".

That is, Teach, Play, Quiz. You'll teach the word to the child, use play, games, or activities to ingrain the words, then quiz your reader orally and on paper to solidify the learning. Each step may look different for each learner depending on how your student learns best, how he ingrains it best, and how he responds to quizzing best.  Here is a deeper look into the T.P.Q. way of teaching sight words.

8. Teach the words one by one.

Depending on your learner's knowledge of phonics at this point, either 1) say the word and have your child repeat, or 2) have your child sound out the word (if possible). Show the word next to a picture or item that it represents. (For instance, if you are teaching the word "cat", also show an actual picture of a cat.) Instruct your child to re-read the word several times.

9. Practice the words using multiple activities. Learning sight words games & incorporating them as you teach = score!

Engage each of your child's senses when practicing the sight words you have for the week.

Games are always a winner when it comes to learning. I know in our family, when I've had trouble particularly with our two boys in getting them to want to learn something, all I need to do is make it into a contest somehow, or a race. Then it's on!

Remember how we talked about the different kinds of learners? Well, put this knowledge to use when you are teaching sight words to your student.  Choose sight word activities that match the learning type of your reader to introduce the words - And then, when you've introduced the word, begin to integrate other kinds of learning styles to solidify gains and seal that word in your child's mind for reading.

So in other words - choose games and activities that match your learner, and then continue with other types of learning activities. Here are some examples to start:

10. Use a few tactile sight word games and activities.

Remember, Pinterest can be your best friend. Seriously, head over there now (well, after reading this article ;), and just type in "tactile sight word activities". See what you get that will stir your creative juices. Think shaving cream finger paints, sensory bins, playdough, sand, rocks, legos! All places and ways to incorporate some sort of sight word learning activity. Doesn't it make you feel like you wish you could be back in Kindergarten, even for a day? Well guess what? Our kids today still need these same things - hands-on, fingers-in learning that doesn't feel like learning. 

11. Incorporate physical/motor sight word games and activities.

There are just so many fun ways to teach sight words. If you are at home, incorporate the learning as you jump on the trampoline, swim in the pool, hopscotch across the driveway, or run relays in the backyard. Get those kid's active with their sight words!

Choose activities your child already loves and give points or scores for words read or remembered. Again, get creative! Especially outside - active learners learn very well in the outside air and sunshine (and if you ask me, a rainy day can be fun too). Surely there is a sight word activity for splashing in puddles. I'll have to Google that!

12. Include recitation/oral review of the words.

Have your student repeat the words out loud to you somehow during the activities or games that you plan. When I was a kid, our family dinner was a great time to go over things in the day we had learned, just by talking about it. Maybe choose to have your student teach YOU the words or to play school and teach his friends or stuffed animals. Whatever you select, make sure your child is saying the words frequently when reading them.

13. Make certain you also choose written sight word exercise & activities.

At some point, the rubber has to meet the road. If your child is at an age where he or she has learned basic writing skills, instruct him to write the words out. You can choose written worksheets or puzzles to get them to bring their learning to paper.

When you orally recite a word and your child can relay that onto print with pen or pencil, then you are good to go!  Bringing it into this format will stimulate your child's mind even more and help in the learning of the words. 

14. Quiz - Go over sight words a few a day, quickly reviewing in the morning and again at bedtime on flash cards handmade or bought.

The main concept of learning sight words is that they are learned by memory and can be retrieved by memory and sight when reading. After you have taught the words and then introduced them additionally through play and other activities, you need to just test and quiz and go over and over the words for memory.

Flashcards are great for this, although I'd consider using them only in the quizzing part of your "T.P.Q." process. My thoughts are to only use flashcard repetitions for review, not for introducing the words (unless they are flashcards with sentences for context). Quiz, rinse, repeat!

15. Learn sight words in the context of short sentences almost immediately after introducing the words.

And THIS is why I wrote the book I did. I couldn't find an instructional book (other than the Dick & Jane books from the 50's - and those weren't based on Fry words or comprehensive enough for me) that did this effectively with sight words.

So I would definitely suggest "How to Read: a Kick-Start for Beginners of Any Age" as one of your sight word activities. Sight words should not JUST be memorized. At least not without incorporating them into a short sentence directly after. You are building upon their vocabulary sentence by sentence, and encouraging a great basis for fluency and comprehension for your reader in this way. 

16. It's okay to use incentives, especially for struggling readers.

(And conversely, it is NOT okay to punish or single out a child for not grasping the sight words.) Remember (and this is SO important!), children learn at different rates and ages. It will go a long way for you, and especially with strugglers or children of any kind of trauma background who struggle with academics, high praise for what they DO get correct (even if it is just effort (maybe even more praise for effort)).

I won't get too much into what to use for incentives; just know that you are an A+++ high-marks teacher if you can make the incentive a learning tool in itself (trip to the zoo, new book)..  you get the idea!

17. Remember, remember, remember this! Reading strategies for elementary students will differ from person to person.

I know it can seem like a lot! Just put more emphasis and effort into the words your student struggles with the most. Compile your own list of your child's "struggle words" and really hone in on them with these types of activities.

If you are teaching a class, try to hit all the marks so that the different learners in your class are being fed what they need. If you are a parent or one on one with a student, you are in a great position to know your reader's best learning style and adapt your teaching to fit.

We all learn differently, so why teach sight words only in one way? When you "solidify" the words into your student's memory, it's best to use different techniques anyway (I.e: motor, tactile, orally, written, etc.), so you'll need to have multiple tools regardless.

There you go! 17 reading strategies for elementary sight words that help you as you teach. I hope this got you thinking and gave you a great place to start as you endeavor to teach reading. Let me know in the comments below what YOUR thoughts are and if you have any of your own great ideas that you would like to share!


Forever a reader for life,


P.S. - Check out THIS PAGE for more information on how to teach beginning readers!

17 reading strategies for elementary sight words