Sight Words for Kindergarten? Yes, But Not Too Many

  • 26 February, 2010

Blast from the Past: This entry was first posted on February 26, 2010 and was re-issued on February 2, 2019. When this blog entry first posted the only part that was controversial was the number of words recommended (since some of the publishers and consultants were promoting large numbers of sight vocabulary and I was suggesting they were overdoing it). These days the dyslexia-focused advocates would likely fry me for supporting the idea of teaching sight words directly (and not just as an outcome of phonics). Basically, sight words are words students can identify immediately with no evident sounding or mediation. If decoding is taught well and effectively students eventually recognize almost all words as sight words. However, in the beginning it is useful to teach students to recognize some high frequency words--even by memory.

Teacher letter:

 Dr. Shanahan,

I’m writing you out of sheer frustration in doing my own research on the topic of Kindergarten Sight words – perhaps it’s because the answer I’m looking for just isn’t there??

I’m on the hunt for some solid research and have not been successful in finding it (I’m usually pretty good in doing so!) My K teachers are in disagreement about the teaching of sight vocabulary – and it’s a driving force for some angst right now in their team. I just printed the executive summary of the report of the natl early literacy panel…yet as I skim through I see nothing regarding sight word acquisition.

At this point, we have some that believe it’s NOT developmentally appropriate to teach sight words…..others are very skills=based and driven to do so, especially with the 1st grade goal of mastery of 100 high frequency words by Oct 1 of first grade. There are currently 60 high frequency words being measured/hopefully mastered by the end of K in our data books for that level. 

Could you provide some insight about this? Specific research for me to back it - - How many? Which ones? 

Shanahan's response:

Dear Coach:

Thanks for your letter. Research and experience tell me that sight word instruction is helpful to young children who are learning to read. However, the research is not terribly specific as to how many words should be taught or when so anything I say on that will have to come entirely from experience and the wisdom of others.

I have no qualms in saying that it IS developmentally appropriate to teach sight words to kindergarteners (or even preschoolers). If it weren't developmentally appropriate, then young children simply would not learn the words (but they do). I’ve watched hundreds of Kindergarten teachers teaching words and have reviewed lots of research on the teaching of print to young children, and see no evidence that this cannot be done profitably and well.

Based on its seminal research review (Prevention of Reading Difficulties) the National Research Council issued an implementation guide for schools, a marvelous little book, Starting Our Right: A Guide to Promoting Children’s Reading Success that I used when I was director of reading in Chicago. It suggests that by the end of kindergarten, children should recognize some words by sight including a few very common ones (the, I, my, you, is, are). Unfortunately, it isn't specific as to how many, but this authoritative guide makes it absolutely clear that sight word teaching is appropriate in kindergarten.

However, 60 words sounds high to me (as does the idea that everyone will know the most frequent 100 words by Oct 1 of grade 1). That sounds ambitious (which is good), but I suspect that there will be a lot of failure with it. I’ve always told my teachers that by the end of grade 1 the students should know all of the 100 most frequent words — and a 300-500 other easy-to-decode words as well. Typically, the first 100 high frequency aren’t mastered by most kids until Thanksgiving or so (and that is with considerable effort).

I would suggest a much more modest goal for the end of kindergarten (perhaps 20 words or so, with at least 10 of those being high frequency words). I think your teachers are frustrated not because they are teaching the wrong stuff, but because the standard is set too high to be practical.

They also may be struggling with this teaching if they aren’t well-versed in how to do that. Too often sight word teaching becomes a drill-sequence that is unnecessarily tedious. Try things like having the children dictate language experience stories, and do lots of reading and rereading (including choral reading) with these. Then start pulling words out of these stories and help the children to examine these outside of the context of the story. That kind of teaching goes much faster and will be less stressful for everybody.



See what others have to say about this topic.

chris williams May 03, 2017 10:54 PM

If a Kindergarten kids knows 20 words at the end of the year, and remembers those 20 words the following September, they would have to learn an about 3 words per week to meet the end of first grade goal of 100 words. Is that possible?

Perry May 28, 2017 04:34 PM

I am fustrated with the expectations for kindergarten and early 1st grade. The expectations for the end of 1st grade and 2nd grade are reasonable, but our kindergartners are expected to read, write, and spell correctly " the first 100 kindergarten sight words" (which to me implies there is a second 100). They expect them to read at a level E or DRA 8, which contains words with ing, ed, long vowel sounds. They are also expected to write 3 sentences with neat printing without supports. As such, large numbers of 1st graders are label in the first 6 weeks of school as endanger of being held over and given student contracts. Some of these expectation are our district others are our 1st grade teachers. As the Kindergarten teachers don't hold children to all these standards at the end of the year parents become upset after the transition to 1st.
We were called out early this year because we didn't feel children should be labeled below expectations if they did not know all their letter names by the first 6 weeks of Kindergarten. We find most know them by Thankgiving and we think that fine. I don't get scaring parents. I see no research to support the early push, but rather the opposite. What do you think?

Timothy Shanahan Jul 02, 2017 12:39 AM

Chris and Perry--

Chris, indeed, kids can learn the 100 most frequent words in the language during first grade (even if they enter knowing no words). You do need to teach phonics with a tiny amount of attention to sight words as part of that. I would argue for getting moms and dads involved, too (they can be a big help). I've seen many average schools accomplish that goal during the first semester.

Perry, yes, the first hundred suggests that will be a second hundred--and a third. In my schools, I promoted teaching the 100 most frequent words by the end of grade 1 and the first 300 (including the first grade words), by the end of grade 2. These children are also expected to recognize hundreds of other words because of their decodability. An average reading first-grader should be able to read 500-600 words by the end of the year (including those most frequent words).

The research, in fact, is very clear that one of the best and most consistent predictors of kids' reading success is their early progress with letter names. I don't know that all kindergartners need to know all the letter names in the first six weeks, but it is going in the right direction (back in the old days, in my first-grade classrooms, the kids often didn't know their letters when they came in). However, if this is a challenge for you and your colleagues I would argue for you to try to engage parents in helping with this (particularly during the summer prior to entering kindergarten). That way the climb might not be so steep.

Cathy Puett Miller Jul 02, 2017 12:39 AM


Dr. Shanahan - Thanks so much for posting this. I was just told today by a preschool teacher that she had been given the pre-primer list of 40 Dolch sight words and told that the preschool children in her Head Start should know all 40 before they come to school - absurd!
I also agree very much with your references to Dr. Snow, et al work which supports the idea of integrated experiences with reading, plesaure and enjoyment of stories and lots of experience understanding that print has meaning. Keep up the good work!

mary in Tennessee Jul 02, 2017 12:40 AM


I thank you as well for bringing sanity to this issue. Dr. Lester Laminack taught us to use poetry to build our students ability to read sight words. I found this very easy to do and use poems that are theme related. My Ks usually can read at least 25 sight words on average just by using this method

SearchingForAnswers Jul 02, 2017 12:41 AM


How appropriate and/or scientifically logical is it to retain students in grades K and 1 for non-mastery of large numbers of sight words? My main concern is the stress and pressure we are exerting in kindergarten for promotion based on sight words. At some schools, they shoot for 92 words by the end of kindergarten. Some students are pushed to master 92 sight words (although they only need to know 65 to pass) but end up experiencing tears and frustration in the process. Something about this bothers me deeply. Is an overemphasis on sight words "muddying" the waters when we should be focusing on phonemic awareness and phonemes?

Timothy Shanahan Jul 02, 2017 12:41 AM


Searching for Answers

Indeed, basing promotion and retention on the number of sight words known by kindergartners would be a foolish practice. It is an approach not consistent with either good pedagogy (look at the research on retention) or on what it means to teach someone to read (a focus on phonological awareness and decoding should dominate at this point). Flunking 5-year-olds because they have not yet memorized 65 sight words in neither appropriate nor scientifically logical. It isn't good for the kids either.


Ann Battle Nov 05, 2017 07:38 AM

My so is in kidergarten and he knows 500 sight words, days of the week , months of the year. and a lot more read fluently. and is bored sittin in kindergarten they can do it, it needs to start at home

Julia S Jan 03, 2018 05:59 AM

It seems to me that the term “sight words” is so poorly defined as to be pretty much useless.
I have generally seen it used to refer to one of four things:

1. High Frequency words
2. Phonetically irregular words
3. Words (whatever they may be) that are taught by the whole word, flash-card, look-say method, rather than by phonics
4. Words that have been learned so well (by whatever method) that they are instantly recognized

This is not just a matter of different people who disagree with each other about which of these four is the correct definition. I’ve encountered lots of individuals who think of the definition of “sight words” as some sort of overlapping (and often self-contradictory) combination of these four concepts.

Could we please just dump this nonsense?

Katheryn Santos May 11, 2018 02:31 PM

Hi , I have twin girls and they are in kindergarten just recently their dad obtain temporary custody of my girls and he lives in Atlanta I live in Virginia beach , am confused because my girls where not behind in school here but in Atlanta they are saying that my girls are behind because they should have known 75 sight words ; and they are trying to make me out to be this unfit mom because of this!
I think 75-100 sight words for a kindergarten child that is learning so much already at once is too much !
My daughters knew 10 sight words ; mind you we had a house fire and they missed allot of days because they had the Flu and Impetigo a really bad contagious skin rag she caught in school.

I agree that 20-25 words seems more reasonable .

Thank you guys for all your input , I feel much better after reading you all comments because I was thinking there is no way that a 5 year old should know 75 sight words by the end of Kindergarten!!
there is but gosh i think it's over the top!

Megan D. Nov 03, 2018 07:29 PM

Dr. Shanahan,

Thank you for posting this information and your ideas for teaching sight words. I am a kindergarten teacher and I am tutoring a first grade student as part of an assignment for my Master's of Education work. Our school has a 100 sight word expectation for kindergarten students, which I agree is too many. Some students may be ready for that many words, and I think that is okay for those students to build their sight word base. Although, other students that come nowhere near the 100 word goal should not be considered "struggling" or "non-proficient" for that reason.
As I continue to work with my first grade tutee who knows very few sight words, what are some other instructional practices I could implement, or activities I could suggest he practice at home? Thanks!

Jana Kimbal Feb 09, 2020 02:57 PM

I've been researching best practices related to teaching sight words in Kindergarten. After reading some articles from your website, I have developed these thoughts. Please respond with your expert advise. I've read that research clearly suggests that it is best to begin teaching sight words after students know the letter names and sounds. I've also read that there are about 10-15 sight words that should be taught prior to phonics instruction so that students can learn sight words in the context of sentences that include those sight 10-15 words. I pay close attention to progressions, so it makes sense to me to to begin sight word teaching after letters/sounds are known, then teach those 10-15 sight words so that they can be learned in the context of sentences, sight word readers, poetry, etc. With that type of progression, it seems that there would not be time in the year for kids to truly learn 100 sight words; deeply enough to recognize the words in context rather than on flash cards alone. I'd much prefer students know 20-25 words well, than memorize 100 words and not be able to recognize/read them in context. Based on my reading, expecting Kindergarteners to know 100 sight words by the end of Kindergarten is not best practice, especially basing promotion to 1st grade on knowing them. I have a sight word routine in place for each day of the week and my students are doing well with retaining the words and recognizing them in their Scholastic News magazines, decodeable readers, poetry, etc. My wonderings are mainly about when to begin sight word instruction and the number of words expected to be known by the end of Kindergarten. I do want to thank you for your work and this website. It's been a great help to me. It's affirmed some of my thoughts and practices, but also given me more information for thought.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 28, 2021 12:50 PM


That is fine for building vocabulary, but we are talking about sight vocabulary -- a very different animal. This is about words that children can read.

good luck.

David W. Wolbeck Jul 28, 2021 05:44 AM

Familiarizing kids with just a few building-blocks of commonly used simple-to-SEE words, whether one hundred, two, three whatever, isn't rocket science, in fact it's not even a science at all, it's more of an artform or work-of-art, if anything gonna call!

Look, let me spell it out for yuh, make it as plain as day ok. For example, you take your toddler out for a stroll, and you say look at the flowers, or look at the grass, see how GREEN it is? And look at that building right over there, just look at it, see how TALL it is! And you say it in a way to make them care, not wanna look elsewhere, know what I mean? Of course you do! Same with words, you say.... look at this word ABOUT, and look at this word DOES, or find the word IT, or flip the pancack that has the word CAN on it, on and on ad infinitum!

Anyway gonna cut it short there, time is limited, don't have time to finish this one, and I need some air, a breather too, I swear! So without formal conclusion this deal I'm calling done! Gotta run it was fun! Take good care alright folks, be safe out there, bye bye now!

The Prosecution Leader,

David W. Wolbeck


I am a Kinder teacher as well. In my district, we are expected to have close to 90 words by the end of the school year with it being almost 75% of the final score for ELA. Each word is worth three points. Not only are there so many words, but there are many " heart" words that do not follow the patterns these students are taught. I understand a few heart words are important as they will see them many times over when reading, but when a large portion of their words are not decodable, they tend to really struggle as they are trying to solidify their knowledge just in letter sound recognition and blending those sounds. I have struggled to see the developmentally appropriateness in the expectations. That said, many kids get enough to pass in my class, but I have to either have really amazing parents who work with their child, naturally gifted readers, or be really good at teaching sight word recognition explicitly. I appreciate all the comments and I hope all the teachers here find answers and see success.

Midnight Mom Sep 14, 2023 07:03 PM

I'm currently looking this information up because we are in the middle of September & my kindergarten son has a sight word test tomorrow on TEN sight words, a spelling test of 5 cvc words, has to read 3 reading fluency sentences, & this is after being required to identify all letters, capital & lowercase, of the alphabet by the end of August. He is an older kindergarteners because he will be 6 the first week of November & he went to Pre-K last year. The kids received medals each Friday if they knew all the letters for that week and the previous weeks. Some kids didn't get a medal at all, not on any of the Fridays. They looked completely devastated & just crushed. These kids are not developmentally ready for all of this. My son cries every single morning when he wakes up, on his way to class, & every Sunday day night. Just the behavior expectations for these 5 year olds stresses my kiddo out. They have already taken a state assessment on the computer that they had to be able to login with a password themselves.

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Sight Words for Kindergarten? Yes, But Not Too Many


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