Research Based on How to Teach Sight Words


Based on surveys of educators and parents, the best way to understand how to teach sight-based words is to utilize proven resources and techniques as substantiated by research studies. Sight-based words are defined by Drs. Edward Dolch and Edward Fry as "words commonly found in print that emergent readers are encouraged to recognize by sight." These words are used to teach children to read during the early stages of their learning and reading development. There are multiple methodologies and theories for teaching sight words.

Things You'll Need

  • Children's first word books
  • Flash cards
  • Sight word games
  • Pictures
  • Music
  • Teach sight words by first using a "whole word" language approach. According to a well-known study regarding how to teach sight words was conducted by Edward William Dolch in the 1940s. Dolch developed a list of the most frequently used words that children can memorize using a "whole word" language approach. The list consists of about 220 words. Teaching the whole word approach means teaching the entire word instead of breaking it down. This approach is similar to teaching the word as if it were one of the letters in the alphabet. The whole word language approach can be taught by using repetition, listening and saying sight words, and playing games.

  • Select visual cues in or around the word to help the child associate the cue with the sight word and vice versa. The Science of Reading: A Handbook" by Margaret J. Snowling wrote about this approach by explaining the study conducted by Phillip Gough in 1980. "Cue reading" can be taught by teaching words by associating them with pictures or through picture books, using flashcards with pictures of the word next to the written word, and creating or singing songs that incorporate the use of sight words.

  • Point out and read aloud signs, labels and instructions when performing everyday functions. As you take your child to the grocery store or come across transportation signs, ensure that your child becomes aware of the words on boxes or signs. A good example is pointing out the words and symbols on public restroom signs or yellow "Caution" signs. Evidence base studies and research was conducted in 1998 by D.M. Browder and Y.P. Xin relating to utilizing the functional approach to learning sight words. More information on this approach can be found at the National Dissemination Center for Children With Disabilities website.

  • Teach both phonetics and the "whole word" language approach by helping children to memorize the word in conjunction with teaching children about the way the word is written and spelled. According to the 1992 NAEP, most teachers in the U.S. adopted what they described as a balanced approach to reading instruction. More information about the balanced approach can be found on Balanced Reading website.

  • Emphasize the reading-writing relationship by making a goal to teach kindergarteners 20 sight words by the end of the school year. Ten of those words should be high-frequency words. This method is stressed by Dr. Timothy Shanahan, who is the professor of urban education at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he is director of the Center for Literacy. He based his suggestion on the seminal research review ("Prevention of Reading Difficulties") and the National Research Council implementation guide for schools, titled "Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children's Reading Success."

  • In conjunction with the above steps, customize your method of teaching sight words toward a technique that is best suited for your child's learning style based on your own assessment of his learning style and behavior. It should go without saying that every child is unique. Dr. Sebastian Wren made an interesting statement when he said, "The focus needs to shift to the student and the individual learning needs that can be revealed through ongoing, diagnostic assessment. Only when all teachers learn to diagnose student reading skills and respond with focused, deliberate instruction will literacy be available to all children."

Tips & Warnings

  • Note that the functional reading approach focuses on research based on children and/or adults with disabilities.
  • While the above steps are in a certain order, feel free to utilize a different order or use all six approaches or steps at the same time.
  • Many children learn at a different pace, don't get frustrated if some steps, approaches or techniques do not work right away.


  • Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images
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