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What Are Sight Words?

Sight words are common words that are often not spelled phonetically but must be read fluently and automatically at first sight. Many educators recommend instantly recognizing these high frequency words. In fact, automatic word recognition is a key to becoming a fluent reader.

Teachers want children to read these as whole words so they are read automatically at first sight. Decoding each word can be frustrating and an emergent reader can quickly lose the meaning of the text. Recognizing sight words immediately allows a reader to focus on decoding the more challenging words and understanding the text. More importantly, knowing sight words instills confidence when learning to read.

Some adults are not familiar with the term sight words until their children enter kindergarten. These words are also referred to as high frequency words, Dolch service words, wall words or instant words. Most reading programs contain a word study component that emphasize developing a sight word vocabulary.

Common Characteristics of Sight Words

While the exact number and precise words vary depending upon the curriculum, a sight word list generally contains between one and three hundred words. Sight words share a few common characteristics.

  • They are commonly found in English text, e.g. and, the.
  • Many do not follow typical spelling rules; they are phonetically irregular, e.g. of, the.
  • Sight words are mostly pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and common verbs. Generally speaking, they are service words; they give meaning and direction.
  • They are difficult or impossible to represent with pictures, e.g. that, was. Typically nouns are excluded from sight word lists. As always, there are a few exceptions, e.g. time, thing.

Sight Words Stats

It is estimated that the English language contains a quarter of a million “distinct” words; however, like most languages, English print is highly concentrated among a very small number of common words. Here are some sight words statistics:

  • Ten words make up about a quarter of all printed material.
  • Half of the ten most common words are phonetically irregular.
  • Twenty-five words make up about a third of all printed material.
  • Almost half of the most common twenty-five words are phonetically irregular.
  • One hundred words represent about half of all written material.
  • Three hundred words make up about 65% of all printed material.

Sources: Dolch, E.W., Ph.D. (1948). Problems in Reading. Champain, IL: The Garrard Press.

Fry, E.B., Ph.D. & Kress, J.E., Ed.D. (2006). The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists 5th Edition. Sanfransico, CA: Jossey Bass.

Rath, L.K., Ed.D & Kennedy, L. (2004). The Between the Lions Book for Parents. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

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