Unsightly Sight Words

There is much commentary about teaching sight words, with good reason.  This ineffective practice still runs rampant in most Australian Primary Schools.

 Just for fun, I bought myself a copy of a book called “Literacy through Literature” fully expecting to be confronted by a book FULL of whole language practice.  It was a bit like watching a television show where a doctor pops other people’s pimples. It’s awful, but you just can’t look away!

I expected to find much to make me cringe (and I did), but I also found this…

Literacy through Language – Johnson & Louis, 1985

The book in question was first published in 1985 (that’s 34 years ago for those playing at home).   Even then, it was recognised that pumping children full of random words and expecting them to learn them is ‘questionable’.

Where Johnson & Louis and I part ways is in how children develop this sight vocabulary.  

Before we go on it is necessary to clear up some definitions.

Sight words – words recognised instantly. Eventually, all words we encounter will become committed to long term memory and then be recognised by sight.  They come to form part of our orthographic lexicon and we use our knowledge of the patterns of words and draw on them to automatically decode words as we read. 

This sight reading develops AFTER children have learned to decode words by sounding them out, not instead of learning to sound out.

High frequency words are words that we see all the time. They may be regular or irregular. Regular high frequency words have simple spellings. Irregular high frequency words have a part of the word that is not simple and needs explicit teaching.  Irregular words might be low or high frequency. Regardless, they need to be taught explicitly and practised in context.

In a previous post I wrote about how to teach irregular high frequency words to children. You can find that post here.

When we view high frequency words through the lens of orthographic mapping, we see that the majority of words that beginning readers encounter can be simply sounded out, particularly if you provide decodable instead of predicable texts.  The very small number of irregular words that children will need as they begin to learn to read decodables can be taught explicitly and then practised in a variety of ways.  Be guided by the irregular words that are necessary for children to access your decodable texts and not get caught up with a wall of tricky or golden words flashed at children. The common practice of asking children to read a pile of ‘sight word’ cards will not make most children more fluent readers, but rather will encourage them to guess at words based on the first letter. Aside from providing quality texts, it is important to intentionally teach advanced phonemic skills. Dr David Kilpatrick has done some marvellous research which you can learn more about it below (although grab a cup of tea and a snack – it’s a long one!)


For some children, the development of phonological and phonemic skills will happen quite naturally, however for many, explicit teaching is necessary.   

Let’s Recap

In order to help children develop a strong sight vocabulary:

  • Ditch the sight word programs (seriously, throw them in the bin)
  • Teach phonics explicitly and teach children to blend
  • Provide the opportunity to practice blending words with known sounds
  • Teach children about the regular and irregular parts of irregular words
  • Explicitly teach advanced phonemic skills

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11 thoughts on “Unsightly Sight Words”

  1. Thank you for your clear and informative blog. You resonate my way of teaching. I was at a school that ran a sight word program and in my first week as Assistant Principal i threw it out (literally) and we started explicit phonics instruction. What a difference to the children and staff. I will keep reading!!

    1. Wonderful! It’s the best bit about being in a leadership position. I threw out all of the benchmark reading assessment kits. It is so great to hear about how many other people are committed to evidence based practice. I feel like there’s a real groundswell of change coming and am hugely optimistic for the improvements in practice that we are seeing.

      1. Hi Jocelyn,

        Hello from Northwestern Ontario!
        I just happened upon your blog from a Twitter post. Can you tell me more about your thoughts about Benchmark Assessment kits? Do you have a blog on this? I am curious to hear your view.


  2. Oh goodness gracious me! After teaching for 32 years – your blog is like a breath of fresh air. I wish that Folk high up the ladder at regional level could ask experienced teachers at the coal face – what works and what doesn’t work. Explicit teaching of phonics is the only way to give all children a rock solid base on which their decoding and phonic knowledge can assist them to become fluent readers. Thank you for your words of wisdom!

    1. Hello!

      Thank you for your moving comment! There are many of us on the ‘evidence bus’. I am so pleased to be a part of a community of professionals committed to effective practice. I hope that my posts continue to affirm and support your own practice and that of the other members of our ‘tribe’!

      Take care,


  3. Structured word inquiry (SWI) offers an elegant & more complete/accurate view of our writing system across both regular and what the phonics folk term irregular words. A word like TWO, instead of being explicitly taught as having one regular sound, perhaps a silent letter, and an irregular sound (phonology first folks)…is explicitly taught to kids using the question almost ALL kids (& most adults) ask about it. Why is the W there? When kids are taught tWo is related to words like tWin, tWice, tWelve, tWenty, betWeen, & even tWilight..
    and the W marks the connection b/w the words…kids understand that concept, and aren’t asked to memorize lists of words or parts of words that follow this or that rule w/loads of so-called exceptions. After using S. Lit. for a dozen years, I found kids learned to read more or less (some more, some less), but many still struggled deeply w/spelling & writing. Thank heavens for Pete Bowers, Real Spelling, Gina Cooke and others. About 15-20% of my caseload didn’t progress well with S.Lit, but SWI has been the next step in my learning as a parent and a specialist. What does it mean? How is it built? What is its structure? How do we pronounce it? I applaud where you’ve gone so far (from B.Lit. to S.Lit). Keep going! So much more to learn, and so much fun explaining to kids WHY words are spelled the way they are, and that spelling is consistent even when pronunciation shifts (sign, signal, design, signature.) It is never, ever just about spelling!

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