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Rethinking Sight Words In a Science of Reading World

A child holds Sight Words Flashcards during a reading lesson

Sight words. Heart words. High-frequency words. Instant words. Snap words. Whatever you call them, many districts throughout the country teach these so-called “irregular” words via memorization, teaching students to recognize them on sight (hence their name). 

This approach to teaching sight words is markedly different from the methodology used to teach students how to read the remaining “regular” words of the English language, words that are taught using phonics rules.  

Why do we continue to treat these high-frequency words as a special, excepted class? 

Perhaps it’s time we revisit how sight words are being taught.

What if schools taught a more complete set of phonics rules, giving emerging readers a broader set of letter-sound correspondences and empowering them to decode thousands more words — including sight words?

The Best Way to Teach Kids to Read

Through the Science of Reading, we know that the best way to teach kids how to read is by giving them a set of phonics rules, then teaching them to use those rules to decode new words, connecting their letter-sound correspondences and mapping them into memory.  

However, schools throughout the United States are still teaching hundreds of words — words like those found on the popular Dolch and Fry sight word lists — through rote memorization, rather than taking a grapho-phonemic approach.

Educator and reading researcher Denise Eide, the founder of Logic of English, thinks it’s time for a change — she advocates for applying the same methodology we use for teaching “regular” words to high-frequency words. 

Her body of work—full of straightforward rules and more than a few aha moments—explains that there is a more complete set of rules that can help emerging readers decode nearly all the words on lists like  — those words we currently teach as exceptions. 

Here’s what she has to say about the current state of “sight words” and how we can improve students’ fluency by teaching them to use the letter-sound analysis of the letters in irregular words. 

The Problem With Incomplete Phonics

Right now, educators largely teach what Eide calls “incomplete phonics.” In essence, that means that there are many rules of the English language that are not being taught at all, rules that would better help students decode words. 

For example, based on these incomplete rules, an emerging reader would likely sound out the word “is” as /i/ /s/ instead of /i/ /z/. But “s” also says /z/ in several other words, including “his,” “as,” and “was” — all words included on the Fry sight words list of 1,000 commonly used words. 

If this s/z correspondence only occurred a handful of times in English, there’s an argument to be made for teaching it as an exception. But according to Devin Kerns’ Phinder, “s” says /z/ 43 percent of the time. So even though there’s a near-even split between “s” saying /s/ and /z/, most curricula are still teaching kids that “s” only says /s/.

If we were to teach students these additional rules, they would be able to sound out many of the words currently deemed “sight words,” rather than forcing them to rely on rote memorization. 

Lately, Eide has been exploring what happens when we don’t teach a complete set of phonetic rules and then give kids an early reader book like Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik. Using the incomplete rules, 46 percent percent of the words on the page are “exceptions,” which means they can’t be sounded out using the phonics rules that are typically being taught.  

Little Bear Early Reader Book cover

The word “bear,” for example, breaks the “if two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking” rule. So we teach kids to resort to using first letter, last letter, picture and context cues because our phonics rules don’t hold up.

But if we taught students that “ea” can say two additional sounds (those found in “bread” and “steak”), the reader would have the tools to decode the word “bear,” thereby building automaticity and improving overall reading fluency.

Incorporating Sight Words Into “Complete Phonics”

While many people in the Science of Reading world know some pieces of these more complete phonics, and some curricula incorporate many of the rules, they still aren’t broadly being applied to those high-frequency sight words. 

As Eide sees it, taking that step is a matter of looking at the language and seeing the rules that have been there all along.

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Her approach is to “look at how frequent these [exception-to-the-rule] phonograms or letter-sound correspondences are in the high-frequency words, the 100 words that make up 50 percent of everything kids read and write. Because if we say these words are exceptions, we’ll be saying that a lot as kids read a text.”

By some counts, 30–40 percent of these high-frequency words are exceptions to phonics rules. But, as Eide’s work suggests, if you teach a more complete set of phonics rules, only 5 percent of them are actually exceptions.

The Future of Sight Words

Whether you call them high frequency words, sight words, snap words, or heart words, as you can see, these words are not a special class.

As Eide’s work shows, “they use the same rules you need to explain all the words in English,” which means we can — and should — apply a phonics approach to teaching students to read these words. 

Eide’s approach has the potential to help kids and multilingual learners alike properly decode a huge number of additional words.

Sight Words

It could have long-term benefits for spellers of all skill levels. It could help dispel the idea that the English language is full of exceptions and questions we’ll never answer. And it could all but eliminate the need for separate word lists or much memorization at all.

These are ideas that districts, educators, literacy advocates, teacher trainers, and anyone interested in developing successful readers should consider as we look toward a more complete approach to phonics instruction—and a more clear-eyed approach to “sight words.”

Where to Start: Implementing Complete Phonics in Your School District

Eide suggests that the shift toward a more complete set of phonics rules has to start with a shift in mindset—moving from a belief that the English language is full of exceptions to the belief that there are answers.

“My goal when I speak to educators who are new to this is to challenge this idea [that many phonics questions have no answers],” Eide explains. 

“In science, when a kid has a question, we don’t tell them that something we don’t know is an exception to the laws of physics. We say, ‘I’ll look that up.’ If we can begin the cultural shift of saying, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll look it up,’ and find the phonics rules that apply, that’s a big step.”

As “no one owns the copyright to the English language,” Eide’s Logic of English publishes the phonograms and spelling rules they teach for free on their website. 

When this information is available to everyone, the Logic of English team’s thinking goes, any district or educator can gain and teach a more complete understanding of phonograms and letter-sound correspondences.

For more guidance on how to improve reading rates in your district, learn about Ignite Reading’s work here.

About Ignite Reading 

Ignite Reading is on a mission to ensure every child learns how to read. We provide schools and school districts with one-to-one virtual tutoring that teaches students the foundational skills they need to become confident, fluent readers. We pair developing readers with expert reading tutors who provide daily, 15-minute, Science of Reading-based instruction that rapidly closes decoding gaps.

Students across all demographics achieve the same outstanding results–an average of 2.4 weeks of reading skills growth per week of instruction–including students with IEPs, multilingual learners, students of color and those receiving free or reduced-price lunch. After 14 weeks of tutoring with Ignite Reading, the percent of students whose composite score was at or above benchmark on the DIBELS assessment grew from 11% to 45% (American Institutes for Research study of K–3rd graders in six Massachusetts school districts, 2023).

By ensuring all students master the foundational skills to fluently read any word, Ignite Reading empowers them to move forward and unlock everything school and life have to offer.