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  • Writer's pictureAshley

How to Teach Your Child to Read Sight Words

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

Sight words, high-frequency words, and popcorn words are a really big deal in kindergarten through second grade. I'm sure that your child and their teacher have brought them up at length. Teachers grade on sight word knowledge and have rewards for those who learn their yearly list.

So what do you do when your child is struggling to learn them?

The answer is you take the instruction and practice into your own hands. Yes, you can do this! You can teach your child how to read.

But first, let's start with what exactly sight words are so you have a true understanding of what we want our children to do.

What are sight words? Important Definitions.

Sight words are any words that your student learns to read with automaticity. In other words, the word is memorized and they can rattle it off in any context. There is no pre-defined list of sight words because a sight word is ANY word you memorize.

So what are those disconnected lists that your child brings home to practice and memorize?

Well, those lists are almost always high-frequency words.

High-frequency words are just what they sound like, the most frequently seen words in texts. The lists of words are typically called either Dolch words or Fry words. Each comes from the findings of Dr. Edward William Dolch (1936) or Dr. Edward Fry (1957, updated 1980). Both believed that students should memorize and know the most frequent words by sight. The Dolch list includes 220 words with no nouns, while the Fry list includes 1,000 words with nouns!

You can understand why they are such a big deal now. If kids memorize the most frequently seen words in a text, it will make reading much easier. They will know many of the words without any thought and will have more energy for decoding the words they don't know.

Heart words

Another term you may have heard of is heart word. Heart words are high-frequency words that we want kids to learn and memorize but they have special heart parts. When we are decoding a word and a part seems irregular, we teach kids to put a heart over that part so that they learn the irregular part. They have to know that part of the word by heart, whereas the rest of the word can be decoded, or sounded out.

Do the different names mean anything? (Translated as, why should I care?)

My college teaching reading classes taught me this:

  • Sight words are irregular and can't be decoded so kids just have to memorize them.

  • High-frequency words are usually decodable, but not always. In any case, we teach kids to memorize them.

  • Heart words weren't mentioned.

Here's why you should care...

  1. We want many words to become sight words that kids know automatically but why waste time teaching them to memorize words they can decode, or sound out. If they have strong decoding skills, they will use those skills to read the word.

  2. When we teach high-frequency words that are irregular, we are giving kids the keys to words that they cannot decode.

I use the heart word method of teaching irregular words. I teach them the parts they can decode or sound out and then teach them to memorize by heart the parts that are irregular.

One last thing about irregular words, though. When you learn the rules of our English language you will find that only about 4% of words are truly irregular and Most often, students just haven't learned the phonics rule to support the irregular part of the word.

(Example: The word see. For kindergarteners and some first graders, the /s/ sound would be regular and decodable, however, the ee pattern that says long /ē/ would be a heart part. Once they learn this spelling pattern, see would no longer be a heart word because they can decode the two parts: /s/ /ē/.

Why does my child need to learn these sight words?

At the end of the day, enabling students to read is the goal of teaching sight words. Every word that a student has memorized and can read automatically, frees up energy and brainpower to work on decoding unfamiliar words in the text. Memorized words give students the ability to read more words and texts with less difficulty.

It is also important to note that many words on these lists cannot be figured out through context clues. Words such as are, was, is, and the are not words you can just look at a picture and figure out or guess from the rest of the sentence. (Please note: We do not want our kids guessing words on a regular basis!)

Teaching Your Child


Say the word: said. Then have your child repeat it back. Next, count the number of sounds in the word, /s/ /e/ /d/, 3 sounds. Draw three lines on your whiteboard or paper. Ask, "What's the first sound you hear?" /s/ Have them write that sound on the first line. Say all of the sounds in the word again. Then ask "What's the last sound you hear?" /d/ Have them write the d on the last line. Finally ask, "What's the middle sound?" When your child says /e/ tell them "In this word, /e/ is spelled ai. This is the part you need to know my heart." Write ai on the middle line and put a heart above those letters.

Now that the word is written in front of your child, ask them to read the word and then spell it out loud. After this do some fun exercises for a few minutes that could include rewriting the word, building it with stamps or magnetic letters, typing in on the iPad, air writing, and finally putting the word on an index card.

You've just taught your child a new heart word that they will practice and learn so that it becomes an automatic sight word. Good job!

Subsequent Practice

Practicing sight words

  • Write the words in many different ways using different writing materials

  • Flashcards

  • Sight word songs

  • Child-created sentences that are written and reread

  • Child and adult-created books

  • Find in the real world - on signs, in books, at the story, in the car, in subtitles, etc.

  • Incorporate reading and writing into board games

  • Use movement - jump rope or hopscotch spelling, basketball words, chalk writing, etc.

  • Allow your child to be the teacher - teach siblings, pets, or any adult who wants to learn

For more information and ideas check out these two sites: Really Great Reading's Heart Word Magic and Reading Rocket's Routine For Teaching Heart Words.

How does your family practice sight words? I would love to hear from you! Leave me a comment letting me know what fun things you do to engage your students in this important learning.

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