Should We Still Teach Sight Vocabulary?

  • decoding sight vocabulary phonics
  • 11 November, 2023

Teacher question:

Our local school district still teaches "sight words." I know that people mean various things when they call words "sight words"-- words that kids don't have the phonics principles for yet, words that are high frequency, and words that "are not decodable." I also understand that brain research says memorizing whole words is a poor practice, and I know that "sight words" is a term that is being phased out in order to communicate that 80% of words are decodable, and emphasizing helping kids flexibly solve words using the parts that do follow predictable phonics rules. Will you please weigh in?

RELATED: My state is banning instructional practices… or, how to look like you are teaching effectively…

Shanahan responds:

I know of no brain research that shows memorizing words to be a bad practice. In fact, we don’t know what information is stored in the brain about words (rules?, patterns?, images of the words themselves?), so memorizing some words could be beneficial to the overall reading process. There certainly is research that shows sight word instruction contributes positively to fluency and comprehension (Griffin & Murtaugh, 2015), and it isn’t clear t what role words themselves play in the development of orthographic mapping -- only that they may play some role (Price?Mohr, & Price, 2018; Schmalz, Marinus, & Castles, 2013).

When it comes to sight vocabulary definitions, I’m in the camp that reserves that label to words the students can recognize seemingly instantaneously. Curricula or instructional intentions play no role in the matter. If a student recognizes a word immediately on sight, then it is a sight word no matter how or why that word was learned.

Think of a sight word as being something akin to your best friend’s name. I’m not especially gifted when it comes to learning names. But I can tell you that my wife, Cyndie, would make life a bit unpleasant around here if I hesitated on her name. Sight words are like your best friends’ names. They are words that you know immediately with no hesitation.

Reading programs may fuzz this definition up a bit. They rather hopefully label words that they designate for direct instruction as sight words, as if the instructional success were a certainty already accomplished. As you point out, they may focus on high frequency words, words that aren’t easily decoded, or words that they simply want to use in their stories. Those are all good reasons for trying to teach some words, but whether those words will become sight vocabulary has more to do with how they are taught or how much time is spent on them.

Naïve observation, behavioral research, and brain study concur that sight vocabulary is about memory (Berglund-Barraza Tian, Basak, & Evans, 2019; Joseph, Nation, & Liversedge, 2013). However, that shared insight leads to very different conclusions about teaching and learning.

Historically, the recognition that young readers benefit from knowing words was translated into graded word lists, flash cards, word drills, and special instructional texts with specific word repetition routines. Psychologists expended much effort trying to determine how many times a student had to see a word before it entered the sight vocabulary: rote repetition was imagined to be the most efficacious approach.

More recent study proposes more nuanced conclusions about what it takes to “memorize” a word.

We can, of course, memorize individual words through brute force paired associate repetition. The issue isn’t whether one can learn words that way, but whether it’s efficient enough for readers to master 40,000 sight words or whether it describes how readers gain the ability to read most words.

Anyone who has carefully monitored young children’s progress in learning to read notices a magical transformation. Initially, learning words seems to be mainly about rote memorization, but for those boys and girls who become readers, new sight words seem to accumulate almost effortlessly.

Something changes.

Students are doing more than remembering more words.

They seem to be learning how to learn words. When children are learning to read, they are learning how to remember words – how to organize them in memory, how to recognize them without decoding or with minimum of decodable effort. Linnea Ehri (2014, 2020) has best described this memory development process.

But if that is the case – and there are many good reasons to think that it is – then it makes sense to try to get words into memory through analysis rather than repetition alone (Hickey, 2007; Newman, Jared, & Haigh, 2012; Steacy, Fuchs, Gilbert, Kearns, Elleman, & Edwards, 2020; Stuart, Masterson, & Dixon, 2000). Memorization often focuses on trivial features (e.g., first letter alone, shape of the word) that may facilitate recall of a small set of words, but which do little to help organize these words into the word reading/spelling system that must develop. There is some evidence that memorized words are stored in memory differently than words that are learned through analysis (Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandliss, 2015), but this appears to be just an immediate effect as word memorization and analysis interact over time making it appear to be a much more fluid and flexible process (Barr, 1984-1975; Biemiller, 1970). [I suspect this Yoncheva study to be what you were referring to. It does show that initially upon learning we store memorized and analyzed words in different parts of the brain, but it says nothing about how words are learned best or what the long-term significance of those differences are. It is important to not try to read too much about learning into such studies.]

I think it makes sense to have students master some words early on – including high frequency words, and those with exceptional spelling patterns. But such word instruction should focus attention on what it is that makes these words unique – their sequences of letters.

This is not outlandish, even with a language like English that has such complex spelling patterns. I’ve long called for first grade teachers to make sure kids can read the 100 most frequent words (and for second grade teachers to do the same with the first 300 words). How would focusing on sound-symbol relations facilitate the learning of these words?

My analysis of the 100 most frequent words (the Fry list) concludes that 55 of these words are entirely decodable – that is, all the orthographic features of these words match the most common pronunciations for letter combinations. Words like and, or, had, but, we, she, up, and will can easily be learned through beginning decoding instruction alone. Another 42 of these frequent words at least partially meet this criterion. Words like the, their, you, were, and his have elements that make them exceptional (that e in the is kind of funky, as is the ou in you, and the s in his is a little strange too), but they also include conventional elements (there is nothing unusual about the th in the, the y in you, or the hi in his).

My advice on attempts to teach sight vocabulary:

1.     Provide beginning readers with a substantial decoding program that shows students how to use letters and spelling patterns for reading words.

2.     When you are teaching spelling patterns make sure those high frequency words are included in the instruction where relevant (e.g., if you are teaching the consonant digraph th, words like them, these, the, and their should be included in the examples or practice items). 

3.     Providing a small amount of direct instruction in some key words that you want students to master is very reasonable. (Experience tells me that as little as 5 minutes a day is enough for this part of a reading curriculum).

4.     Words that you teach – either directly or through their inclusion in a decoding program – should receive frequent repetition both in isolation and context – I want kids to learn those patterns, of course, but also want them to know those exemplars.

5.     Monitor learning to be sure students have mastered those highest frequency words because of their impact on fluency and comprehension (and the role they might play in anchoring decoding skills).

6.     When teaching specific words, facilitate word learning by focusing student attention on the letter sequences, spelling, and decodability of the words. Such teaching reduces the numbers of repetitions needed to accomplish learning.


Barr, R. (1974-1975). The effect of instruction on pupil reading strategies. Reading Research Quarterly, 10(4), 555-582.

Biemiller, A. (1970). The development of the use of graphic and contextual information as children learn to read. Reading Research Quarterly, 6(1), 75-96.

Berglund-Barraza A., Tian, F., Basak C., & Evans J. L. (2019). Word frequency is associated with cognitive effort during verbal working memory: A functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) study. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 13, 433.

Ehri, L. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18(1), 5–21.

Ehri, L. (2020). The science of learning to read words: A case of systematic phonics instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(1), S45–S60.

Hickey, T. M. (2007). Fluency in reading Irish as L1 or L2: Promoting high-frequency word recognition in emergent readers. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 10(4), 471-493.

Joseph, H. S. S. L., Nation, K., & Liversedge, S. P. (2013). Using eye movements to investigate word frequency effects in children's sentence reading. School Psychology Review, 42(2), 207-222.

Newman, R. L., Jared, D., & Haigh, C. A. (2012). Does phonology play a role when skilled readers read high-frequency words? evidence from ERPs. Language and Cognitive Processes, 27(9), 1361-1384.

Price?Mohr, R. M., & Price, C. B. (2018). Synthetic phonics and decodable instructional reading texts: How far do these support poor readers? Dyslexia: An International Journal of Research and Practice, 24(2), 190-196.

Schmalz, X., Marinus, E., & Castles, A. (2013). Phonological decoding or direct access? regularity effects in lexical decisions of grade 3 and 4 children. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 66(2), 338-346.

Stuart, M., Masterson, J., & Dixon, M. (2000). Spongelike acquisition of sight vocabulary in beginning readers? Journal of Research in Reading, 23(1), 12-27.

Steacy, L. M., Fuchs, D., Gilbert, J. K., Kearns, D. M., Elleman, A. M., & Edwards, A. A. (2020). Sight word acquisition in first grade students at risk for reading disabilities: An item-level exploration of the number of exposures required for mastery. Annals of Dyslexia, 70(2), 259-274.

Yoncheva Y. N., Wise, J., & McCandliss, B. (2015). Hemispheric specialization for visual words is shaped by attention to sublexical units during initial learning. Brain Language, 145-146, 23-33. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2015.04.001.


LISTEN TO MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Podcast


See what others have to say about this topic.

Lori Anne Dennis Nov 11, 2023 03:20 PM

F & P calls these words "islands of certainty" for children! I still teach them as well.

Mark Pennington Nov 11, 2023 03:53 PM

I notice in Advice #6 ("When teaching specific words, facilitate word learning by focusing student attention on the letter sequences, spelling, and decodability of the words. Such teaching reduces the numbers of repetitions needed to accomplish learning.") that you don't begin with phonology. No "Say it after me" to introduce the words. Your comment?

Also, would you include set for variability cues to have students brainstorm sound-spelling options?

Thanks, Tim. Uhhh... personal question. You didn't actually climb part way up Everest, did you? With a sherpa?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 11, 2023 04:13 PM


I have no problem having the students saying the word (and sounding the soundable parts) on that step.

Yep, I climbed to Everest Base Camp -- at about 18,000 feet altitude.


Tammy Nov 11, 2023 05:23 PM

I really appreciate the clarity you bring here. The point is to have a vast number of words instantly recognized - including connecting to the words meaning(s) in context. Just like your thoughtful comments on guided reading last week, the term "sight words" now gets us quite confused unnecessarily. I also recommend those top 300 sight words, and focus on teaching the phonics directly within them which gets to thousands more. I have created a handy tool to support analysis by finding these patterns in the Fry list quickly allowing kids to see these patterns in regular and quasi-regular words.

I appreciate also Mark's question and your comment on hearing and saying a word first. When I teach this, I suggest kids isolate the sounds, then represent the sounds as best they can, then correct their initial spelling if incorrect by examining the word comparing to what they wrote, aka analysis. I am particularly interested in differences I am seeing between print to speech vs speech to print and think the latter is a real key to increasing student success. Any comments on speech to print (or expressive to receptive) as a more powerful pathway? Your prior comments and recommendation of Wasowicz's Literacy Learning Network (2021) about the power of writing are echoing here.

Beth Hankoff Nov 11, 2023 06:12 PM

This is so helpful! An SOR fanatic on Facebook once told me that memorizing sight words was a big no-no. Then she sent me the reading rope diagram, which includes sight recognition as a strand! When I asked about this, she said those are “heart words” (words that you learn by heart) rather than words you memorize.

I find a lot of value in the Science of Reading once I get past the jargon. I don't know why some proponents unnecessarily complicate things by insisting on new names for standard, established practices. This just causes more resistance and misunderstanding.

Andrew Biemiller Nov 11, 2023 06:52 PM

Hello Tim, It appears to me that many of the "first 100 words" are functors--sometimes not very decodable. They are needed to construct meaningful sentences. (Functors are also among the first words learned orally in the first 3 years (Hart & Risley, 1999).) I suspect that is why it can be helpful to teach these as "sight words".
Andy Biemiller

Timothy Shanahan Nov 11, 2023 07:12 PM

Andy --

You are correct about the role those 100 words play in the language (and its grammar), but they surprisingly decodable -- at least partially).


Ricki Lane Nov 11, 2023 09:48 PM

Tim, I'm a strong proponent of SoR, but I follow you because you are flexible. As a virtual reading teacher who has retired from 30 years in English Language Arts classrooms all the way from grade 1 (7 years) to Grade 12, I have a somewhat "variated" reading instruction program. At this time we are focusing so much on early reading issues, but with each grade we are hopefully teaching reading at a deeper and deeper level and in every academic subject area. Yes, every child learns to read in the same way, but I have often been on the side that every child is unique.

I recently worked with two students for10 weeks, who were both reading phonetically but had been taught that they must always sound out every word. One of them was in Grade 6 and was still sounding out every word of two syllables and up. He hated reading and read only when absolutely necessary. I was never told how hos mother succeeded in getting him to take my reading course.

One day as he was slowly reading some of his favourite fantasy to me, I stopped him and asked, "When you were reading longer words with prefixes and suffixes to me earlier, you read them quickly without sounding them out. Why are you sounding out so many words in this story?"

He couldn't tell me why.

It dawned on me suddenly: "Did someone once tell you that you had to sound out every word?"

It turns out that this was the case. His grade one teacher had told her students that, and this obedient young man, now in grade 6, had never been helped to move on from there.

I suggested, "Having to sound out so many words really slows you down. Can you try reading this without sounding out words unnecessarily?"

He read the story fluently, beautifully, and expressively. Near the end of our 10 weeks his mom caught him reading a big chapter book in bed with a flashlight, and he just wouldn't stop reading it. And his teacher wrote her an email saying: "Today (your son) completed his end-of-year reading assessments. I am happy to let you know that he has gained four reading levels! This is outstanding! We expect our students to gain 1or 2 levels in a school year , so this is quite an accomplishment..."

Sometimes teachers have to be detectives.

The other child I'm thinking of didn't learn to speak English until he was five. His parents are from Afghanistan. He did poorly in grade one and reached the end of the year with seemingly very poor reading skills. He seriously wanted to learn to read. That's when his mom found me teaching another student in the library and asked me if I could teach her son to read.

He knew his basic phonics and we quickly began to work on the long and variant vowel spellings, which he picked up on quickly. His behaviour and attention span were at times frustrating. Then when I started him on the Dolch sight words he had a huge aha. The joy of discovering that he didn't have to sound out every word was transformational. He was so ready to move on from the intense labour of sounding out every word. He used his knowledge of the sound - letter correspondences until he had memorized all the words. He also loved spelling challenges which nicely reinforced his reading skills. His reading fluency quadrupled. By September, he was reading at mid grade 2 level and his grade 2 teacher phoned his mom to ask her how he had accomplished so much just over the summer.

Don't get me wrong, I have always taught phonemics and phonics diligently with early and struggling readers, integrating phonics instruction with decodable readers. But I have also had students learn the sight words, which I like to call "automatic words" because of the bad rap that sight words have had. And that helps move kids on with fluency. Once they know some of the advanced phonics, many can begin to teach themselves and soar in their reading.

Kids should do both phonics and sight words. We need to be somewhat flexible about the word-decoding or some of them will never do any more reading than they have to. And I think we should be much more explicit with students about our lesson objectives, why we are doing the things we do, and also what we want them to work towards in the near future.

Joan Sedita Nov 11, 2023 10:50 PM

Helpful explanation for teachers that confuse the terms high-frequency words, sight words, and irregular vs regular words. You touch upon how we achieve fluent reading by eventually storing thousands of words as sight words -- this is done through the orthographic mapping process. You alluded to this when you mentioned Ehri's work. Your readers may find helpful two of my resources about orthographic mapping which can sometimes be a difficult concept to unpack: a blog post I wrote in 2020: and a free recorded webinar I did in 2021:

Jo Anne Gross Nov 12, 2023 02:37 PM

Leads to automaticity
Improves Fluency

As Dr.Shanahan states and so does Linnea, “most sight words are partially decodable.”

I love the article!
Thank You , SoR needs this.

Ann Christensen Nov 12, 2023 05:32 PM

Thank you Joan. I appreciated your resources.

Grant Nov 13, 2023 03:20 PM

Is there increased importance and necessity in teaching the first 100 words explicitly to multilingual learners (commonly ELLs) so they can have greater access to the curriculum?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 13, 2023 05:03 PM


I don't think there is a greater need for that for English Learners, but I do think there is a greater burden on the teacher to make sure they not only can recognize those words easily but also that they know either what they mean or have some sense of their grammatical role (no one can really define "of" but knowing how it works is something we all manage to accomplish).


Timothy Shanahan Nov 13, 2023 05:05 PM

With young children, you can make them appear to be good readers with memorization alone -- but if that is all they get, many will lag in the future. There is much more to learning reading than that kind of rote memorization.


Jan Hasbrouck Nov 13, 2023 06:47 PM

Another great blog, Tim. You state that word learning is facilitated "by focusing student attention on the letter sequences, spelling, and decodability of the words." Recent evidence suggests that oral vocabulary makes a causal contribution to the process of learning to read new written words. (citing Signy Wegener, Elisabeth Beyersmann, Hua-Chen Wang & Anne Castles
(2022): Oral vocabulary knowledge and learning to read new words: A theoretical review, Australian
Journal of Learning Difficulties, DOI: 10.1080/19404158.2022.2097717). Should we encourage teachers to focus student attention on letter sequences, spelling, decodability and the MEANING and/or FUNCTION of the word being learned?

Fred K. Nov 14, 2023 03:27 PM

Tim, Thanks so much for your consistent dedication to reading science, not the capital-letter "Science of Reading" movement.

Ricki Lane, I'm troubled by the opening of your comment but am sure many who follow Tim's blog feel the same.

"Tim, I'm a strong proponent of SoR, BUT I follow you because you are flexible" suggests Tim's blog posts aren't always in line with the science of reading, where in fact he's a much more reliable interpreter of the science than most - certainly more reliable than the average Twitter account, podcaster, publisher, or anyone else who stands to gain from popularity.

Your ideas seem to come from the capital-letter "SoR" movement, which tends to oversimplify or incorrectly interpret the research out there in an attempt to make it easier to digest. Since the "movement" lives on social media it is extremely accessible, so many people end up hearing the same ideas over and over. At this point we're living in an echo chamber of inaccuracies, filled with not just parents and teachers, but administrators, DPI/DoE folks, and state legislators.

Truly fluent reading is and always will be a messy integration of skills, requiring multiple areas of the brain. We should all be suspicious of anyone telling us it's simpler than that. My advice is to leave the social media echo chamber and focus on quality resources from places like NCIL, NCII, or UF Literacy Institute.

Ricki Lane Nov 17, 2023 09:59 PM

Fred K.

Thank you. I welcome your response to my comment. I paused at using the word "flexible" to describe Dr. Shanahan, but having studied and taught creative and critical thinking much of my life, I value the word, particularly in connection with teaching children. I see Dr. Shanahan as a critical thinker and leader who questions things.

I have not followed Twitter, or publishers, or any other interpretations of the science of reading that seek popularity, but I have read extensively the works of David Kilpatrick, Mark Seidenberg, Louisa Moats, Keith Stanovich, and others, as well as following organizations such the International Dyslexia Association.

As an evidence-based reading instructor, I do not allow myself to get off track from the findings of the science but I communicate with many educators who are following the science, some of whom I think are focused on making new sets of rules that we are not ready for. There are going to continue to be advancements in the science.

In my comment I was describing a procedure that I tried with two students that seems to be going against the science, but we were still combining both sight and sound and using spelling to commit to memory words that they use frequently.

We are explorers and need to have questions. That is why Dr. Shanahan's writing resonates with me. I see him as being in line with the science but going further with considering how the science is best applied in the classroom.

Gaynor Chapman Nov 13, 2023 04:45 AM

I have been annoyed by the narrowness of SoR fanatics as clearly others have on this blog.

My interest is in NZ literacy history in the 20th century when we excelled at reading internationally. Now largely because of Marie Clay we are bottom of the heap of English speaking countries as well as having one of the longest tails of underachievement in the developed world.

What contributed to our original high achievement was the teaching of traditional phonics. I am a science graduate so fully believe in good scientific research but I also believe we should not ignore the past which I think is being done and not just in NZ. I see this as the ideological insistence of progressive education which is opposed to the traditional.

After reading Anne Castle's and Solby's research results on sight words along with phonics, as well as this wonderfully balanced article by Tim I feel less scared about writing about sight words which have been portrayed as bogeymen by the SoR gang.

The history of NZ literacy can't be understood without some reference to the original strong Calvinist influence which dictated there was to be universal literacy not just for religious reasons but also as the basis for social justice. Hence there was such a serious drive to have everyone reading when my mother taught low SES children in classes of up to 40 children in the 1930s , you lost grading as a teacher if you failed in this aim. She claims she , personally in five years of teaching never saw a dyslexic child but had heard of a few.

Many children arrived at school as five year olds already able to read since the official instructional reading books were all home based and simple enough for anyone to use , having no complex terminology. These early reading children were moved up a year to be in with the six year olds while their peers were taught the sounds and names of the consonants and short vowels written and spoken along with 30 sight words . Any child who had not achieved in this in six weeks was given intensive individual lessons until they did succeed. With the 200 short vowel three letter words known thoroughly along with the sight words the students began reading simple stories from the above mentioned readers. Help at home was essential in the process. For the rest of the first year half the 70 phonemes and common spelling patterns were covered along with about 150 high frequency sight words some irregular and some with phonic patterns not yet covered. By the end of the second year all the the phonemes and most common patterns had been taught. There were no more sight words introduced at the second year but the reading books were traditional stories with natural language but controlled vocabulary introducing the new phonics. A child' s reading was heard orally every school day by the teacher and immediately remediated if any failure was spotted. The rest of the fiendish English spelling patterns and affixes were taught in spelling exercises at the third year and beyond even into secondary school for 13 year olds.

Comprehension was strongly emphasized and that was the reason for having children reading books early with a fairly natural as possible language . To have books like this a larger vocabulary of high frequency words memorized by the child was necessary to begin with but once more spelling patterns were known the memorizing of sight words ceased in the second year.

Maybe more directed research will reveal precisely how many sight words should be taught and when but comprehension must be considered as well.

Jillian Kelley Dec 04, 2023 05:56 PM


I agree with Shanahan, that practicing sight words isn't ever a bad idea. I can see both points to this blog post but I think that the more a student practices those sight words the more than are going to retain it. I do believe out of the Frye 100 sight words students do recognize more common words (I,is, her, he) than others. There are many different resources that can be used with sight words to capture students interest to learn and retain sight words. So, I believe the more practice with them, the better!

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Should We Still Teach Sight Vocabulary?


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