Sight Words – Dreaded or Interesting?

Sight Words – Are They Dreaded . . . or Can They Be “Interesting”?

For teachers and struggling students alike, thoughts of sight words can bring a sense of dread. Most sight words don’t match letters and sounds in regular ways (D. Morrison – personal communication, November 7, 2009), and this irregularity in the matching of letters to sound makes them hard to remember.

Knowing that the thoughts we choose have immediate impact on how our brains work, how can we turn “dread” into “curiosity” about these unique words? What if we celebrated the uniqueness of sight words instead of telling students that they “just have to remember them” . . . and then do endless drills on automatic recognition? I’m sure that we are all familiar with the old adage, “If you think you can’t, you won’t . . . if you think you can, you will.” This shift in thinking results in changing the way we look at things. “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change” (Dyer, 2004). We can turn “dread” into “curiosity” by shifting thinking from “Oh no!” to “That’s an interesting word!”

It has been said that it takes 35 exposures to memorize a word . . . likely many more are needed when students have confusions about the sounds letters can represent. What needs to happen for a student to decode and then remember a sight word – do they remember the pattern of letters as a string or clump, or do they attempt to bring sound to each of the letters they see? In order to “read” a sight word, students have to be able to map sound-to-print in the way that these letters sometimes represent sounds, at times in a unique way . . . and which happen to be different from what might be expected. Many sight words are good examples of “this is how it sounds” being different from “this is how it looks”.

Is there a way to get past reading being primarily an auditory skill for our struggling readers? Are there techniques and strategies that can be used to help struggling readers “break the code” with more than just the auditory channel? The answer is YES . . . by making the experience visible and concrete (kinesthetic) through the use of multisensory strategies, such as Gentry’s “hand spelling” (2007), See the Sound/Visual Phonics (Snow & Morrison, 1981) hand shape cues and written symbols, and/or a variety of visual organizing strategies.

The Brain and Reading

Knowing that there are multisensory strategies that can facilitate the mapping of sound-to-print, it is important to have a good understanding of brain activity during reading. Sally Shaywitz (2003) and Richard Gentry (2006) have written about the Neural Circuitry for Reading in separate publications. Shaywitz states that there are three major areas of the brain that activate in the left hemisphere during reading. The Phoneme Processing Area (located in the inferior frontal gyrus, or Broca’s area) is used in the beginning stages of reading and involves slow and analytical processing. The Word Analysis Area (located in the parieto-temporal area) is where words are pulled apart and put back together, also a slow and analytic process. Since both of these areas are used frequently by beginning readers, Gentry concludes that these areas are most important during beginning reading and writing phases of literacy development. The Word Analysis Area (located in the occipito-temporal area) is where words and word chunks are recognized automatically. Shaywitz states that activation of the Word Form area results in an “express pathway to reading”. Based on the knowledge that the brain processes information by searching for patterns, Gentry (2004) proposes that activity in the Word Form area is basic not only for recognizing words, but also for visual recognition and recall of spelling patterns. He further proposes (Gentry, 2007, pg. 85) that “the mapping of print-to-spoken language in English likely includes not only letter-to-sound but also chunk-to-chunk mapping”. In another publication, Gentry states “English spelling is not a system of matching a letter to a sound; rather, it’s a system of matching chunks of letters to sounds (Gentry, 2006, pg. 26). In order to read a lot of words automatically, the beginning reader must make the chunking throughout.” When the brain “finds” the patterns (whether familiar or unique), the ability to read new words improves.

Let’s take a look at some ways to help students learn sight words from a pattern/chunk basis, and to think of them as “interesting” and unique rather than “dreaded”.

Techniques for Making Sound Visible & Concrete + Building Spelling Pattern Recognition

The ability to decode words relies in large part on having a consistent Alphabetic Principle . . . the concept that speech can be turned into print . . . print can be turned into speech . . .and letters represent sounds in language (SIL International, 1999). Decoding also relies on being able to map sound to both regular and irregular English spelling patterns.

Richard Gentry’s hand spelling (Gentry, 2007, pg. 26), a multisensory technique that makes onset-rime patterns visible and kinesthetic, “materializes” the onset sound and the rime pattern, or “chunk”. Hand spelling involves 4 steps:

1)      make a fist as you say the whole word

2)       put a thumb up for the onset as you say the first sound of the word

3)       extend the fingers out for the rime part as if getting ready to shake someone’s hand as you say the rest of the word

4)       close the open fist as if “grabbing” the onset & rime sounds and pulling them together as you say the whole word

Dividing sight words into the onset-rime units (when possible) may simplify the student’s processing to two chunks, vs. several individual sounds (some students have difficulty synthesizing the 3 or 4 separate sounds of a word into a “whole”). This “chunk” processing relates back to an innate foundation skill of literacy – phonological awareness, and directly relates to the “speedy automatic pathway” function in Shaywitz’ Word Form Area.

Visual Phonics, a system of hand shapes and corresponding written symbols that represent all of the sounds of English (Montgomery, 2008), is a highly “brain-compatible” strategy to makes oral language visible and concrete. Students bring words to the reading experience from their oral language, which is based in “sound”. One way to develop the sound-print connection for sight words from a “sound” basis is to blend a word using Visual Phonics hand shapes and have the students say the word, after which they could view the word spelled phonetically and also spelled correctly. At that point, they could decide which spelling is the correct one, and then write (encode) the “correct” spelling on a white board. This procedure helps students see words “as they sound” and then scaffold to words “as they look”, plus reinforces the orthography of the word through the mapping process of encoding.

The “discovery” that some words look like they sound and some don’t provides an organizational strategy for words with spelling patterns that follow English phonics rules vs. those which are unique & interesting.  A variation of this activity would be to hand shape blend a word, have the students say the word & then encode the word on their white boards as they think it could be spelled. The teacher could then put a few spelling possibilities for the word on the board and have the class decide which spelling would be found in the dictionary. Any student who didn’t have the dictionary spelling as their “guess” would then write the “correct” spelling under their phonetic spelling attempt. Having both phonetic spelling attempts (whether phonetically accurate or not) and correct spelling viewable at the same time provides the “this is how it sounds” . . . “this is how it looks” comparison. A quick way to reinforce the spelling pattern after encoding is to spell the word aloud as a whole group or class, then repeat the word again after spelling it.

Scaffolding from “this is how the word sounds” to “this is how the word looks” also provides an important “framing” opportunity for the spelling pattern or “chunk” for each word, whether it is regular or unique. Sometimes, the “spelling pattern” is a whole word (as in the words “one” , “do” & “of”) and sometimes it is the rime part of the word (as in the “aid” part of “said”, the “ove” part of “move” &  the “eigh” part of “weigh”). The benefit of exposing students to words as they “sound” (phonetic spelling) as well as to “how they look” (the correct spelling pattern) comes from the discovery that some words are spelled the way they sound and some aren’t . . . and that makes the exceptions unique & interesting. With that said, it is highly important that teachers use the terms “unique” & “interesting” vs. “hard” so that our struggling readers view sight words with interest rather than dread! Consider the difference between “this is a hard word, but I know you can remember it” and “this a very interesting word – since it is unique, it will be easier to remember the next time you see it”!

A novel way to facilitate sight word learning/retention is to code sight words in Visual Phonics written symbols. Memory/matching, a common learning center activity, can also be used to build the “how it sounds” & “how it looks” automatic connection.  Simply write the sight words in Visual Phonics symbols on an index card and in letters on another card, and have the student match up the words (this is possible after students have been familiarized with the VP written symbols via associational learning). With the advent of Smart Boards and Promethean Boards, this matching activity could easily be done in a small or large group and take advantage of high interest facilitated by students interacting with technology. Written symbols could also be added under the vowel parts or the “tricky” parts of words on Word Walls, word “family” posters, or sight word posters. Another unique idea is to create a “Sound Wall”, which is organized by vowel sounds. The Visual Phonics symbol for each vowel sound (both short and long sounds represented by single vowels, digraphs, or a combination of vowels and silent consonants) is placed at the top of each column, and all words that have that “sound” are listed under the symbol. For example, the words “ate”, “hey”, “pay”, “sail”, and “great” all have the long A sound and would be listed under the long A Visual Phonics symbol. Likewise, “do”, “flew”, “through”, “blue”, “boot” and “who” all have the long OO sound and would all go under the Visual Phonics symbol for /oo/. The Sound Wall option provides students with a way to use the innate skill of thinking in “sound” to become more aware of how words “look” (their orthography).

Word assembly, or word building, is a powerful activity just by the nature that movement is involved. The “look . . move  . . say” process of physically building words with letters and letter “chunks” is done with letter tiles or other materials, such as oak tag, card stock, commercially produced cards or plastic tiles or cubes.  Sight word lists and letter tiles can be provided for students in a learning center. Students look at a word, then build it with letter/chunk tiles, then say each word as they make the Visual Phonics hand shapes for the sounds in the word.  If pictures are available and are used in place of the words on a list, the activity becomes a truer form of “encoding” and strengthens spelling and decoding skills more than when constructing words from a print model.

A variation of the “look . . move . . say” technique involves the use of “adapted” Elkonin boxes. Elkonin boxes are commonly used with this technique for CVC words, with students moving a letter into a box for each sound they hear. Since struggling readers usually need learning “supports” to facilitate the mapping of sound-to-print, the use of Elkonin boxes can be shifted from a “letter-based” activity, where there is one letter for each sound in a word (as in “bag”), to a “sound-based” activity where there is a Visual Phonics symbol for each sound under the Elkonin boxes that have been “adapted” to reflect spelling patterns. For example, for the sight word “there”, there would be a tall split double box for the /th/ and then shorter boxes for the /ere/. The difference between the typical format of making the boxes side by side with solid lines between the consecutive letters, and the “adapted” version is that if a sound is represented by more than one letter, there is a dotted line in place of a solid line between letters that make that sound. In the case of the word “there”, the  two sounds in the word would be represented by a tall double box with a dotted line between “t” and  “h”, then a triple box for /ere/ where the lines between the “e”, “r” and “e” would be dotted (see illustration below). The Visual Phonics symbols for each sound would then be placed under the corresponding boxes – one for /th/ and one for /ere/. Another example, for the word “saw”, uses one box for each letter but the line between the “a” and “w” boxes would be dotted because the “aw” only makes one sound (see illustration below).

A whole class or group activity that can be effective for learning sight words, vocabulary words or spelling words is set up by writing a list of words on the board and leaving blanks for vowels. Taking turns, each student has the option for which word they choose to “fill in the blanks” (they also have the option choose someone to “help”). Visual Phonics can be easily plugged into this activity by placing the written symbol for the missing sound(s) under the blanks. An upward extension of only removing the vowels would be to leave a blank line for each letter that is silent, as in the words “write”, “know” and “night”. The blank lines then function as a visual reminder of how many letters the word should have. As with all activities where words are pulled apart or parts are left out, the “whole” word is repeated at the end.

Differentiating sight words that have irregular spelling patterns from words that are more consistent in following phonics rules can be a meaningful “sort” task. Since students aren’t expected to remember all of the phonics rules (there are too many), but need to recognize patterns that “fit” rules, they should engage in word sorts that help them to become more conscious of pattern and non-pattern examples. Words Their Way (Bear, et al, 2008)has proven to be an effective program to facilitate sorting in a variety of ways, including both “letterness” and “soundness”, and provides another avenue to raise student awareness of regular and unique spelling patterns. This type of sorting activity could also be easily done on a Smart or Promethean Board, and capitalizes on the very basic cognitive organization “defaults” of inclusion & exclusion. Gentry (2006, pg. 56) states, “This instructional approach (word sorting) intended to develop automatic pattern recognition and improve analogizing and correct spelling . . . is one of the best brain-based strategies for developing word-specific knowledge for both reading and writing.

Some students benefit from the use of visual organizing, or visual support strategies (for example – highlighting, underlining, bold-facing, using a different ink color, italicizing, using a different print or font type). These strategies facilitate the “noticing” or “focus” on target words because of the visual differentiation, and are necessary to lock in the student’s attention to the sight words they need to learn.  The use of visual supports can extend from single word activities all the way to the decoding at the sentence level and beyond into stories. Visual support use should be faded once target word proficiency improves at each level.

Moving from Single Words to Recognition in Text

The transfer of sight words from recognition as single words to recognition in text is a common frustration for teachers.  One possible strategy for building recognition transfer to text is to embed the sight word in a phrase, then expand the phrase to a full sentence as recognition improves.  There are several ways to work at the phrase level – two of which involve the use of a carrier phrase or the cloze technique.

Carrier Phrase Strategy. A carrier phrase can be just two words or longer. For example, if working on the sight word “move”, the phrase could be “move ___” and words to fill in could be prepositions such as “in”, “out”, “up”, “down” & “over”. Another example – for the sight word “very”, the phrase could be “very ___”, with words in a word bank or on cards that could include “tall”, “short”, “old”, “new”, “long”, “good”, etc. The “move & say” technique could easily be used here to make this activity more multisensory. This format takes advantage of familiar phrases commonly used in our oral language and builds or reinforces a degree of “word prediction” for words associated with the target words. Visual Phonics can be easily plugged in to this activity by placing written symbols under the vowels or any “tricky” part of a word and/or by having the student blend hand shapes for each target word, with the result of making the activity highly multisensory.

Cloze Procedure.  This technique involves deleting the target word from a phrase or sentence and then having the student fill in the blank with the target word. In this case, the target word would be the sight word. For example, if the target word was “long”, phrases to complete could be “too ___”, “___ hair”, “___ rope”,  and “___ movie”. Another example, for the sight word “of” would be “a cup  __ milk”, “a can __ pop”, “a piece __ gum”, “a box __ cookies”, etc. Target words would be written on a card for the student to view as they completed the “cloze”. A variation would be to have the phrases printed on a worksheet or sentence strip and have the student move/place the target word on the blank space as they said the complete phrase. Coding the vowel or “tricky”part of the target word with Visual Phonics symbols will be helpful in the accurate mapping of sound-to-print, as coding removes guessing and the potential for confusion about what sounds the letters represent.

Sentence Strips. The use of sentence strips also lends itself to the movement & “assembly” idea. Phrases that have been mastered through carrier phrase and cloze procedures can be written on strips of oak tag or card stock and “assembled” into sentences by combining them with other word or phrase cards. For example, the phrase strip “a cup of milk” could be combined with “My Mom gave me” to make a full sentence.  For some students, the target word needs to be in a different color ink (or highlighted) at first. Once proficiency of decoding in embedded text is gained, the “visual support” provided by the differing ink color or highlighting should be removed so that all print is of the same color. All “assembly” tasks should be finalized by having the student read the phrase or sentence they have created out loud. If this learning center activity is structured as a “partner” activity, the benefit of building & reading is doubled as the partners hear and see the phrases the other student has completed and vice versa.


Learning involves noticing, attending, focusing, synthesizing, and retaining information. The brain loves patterns and meaningful repetition, and is engaged by movement and unique, interesting input. When memory pathways are activated over and over with clear, meaningful information, the pathways become stronger and stronger. Teachers shouldn’t be afraid of wrong answers or confusion, because mistakes present teachable moments and confusion can be productive when the outcome is positive and clarifying.

Sight word learning need not be a task of drudgery and dread. With the right mix of positive, encouraging words and engaging activities, sight words can become “unique” and “interesting”. Words are powerful, and can light up learning . . . or darken it. It’s a choice we make and when positive “can do” words are embedded into instruction that is based in multisensory instruction & activities, the outcome can be “thumbs up!”


Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2008). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (4th ed). Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc.

Dyer,W. (2004). The Power of Intention. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

Gentry, J. R. (2004). The Science of Spelling: The Explicit Specifics That Make Great Readers and Writers (and Spellers!). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gentry, J. R. (2006). Breaking the Code. The New Science of Beginning Reading and Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gentry, J. R. (2007). Breakthrough in Beginning Reading and Writing. New York: Scholastic.

Montgomery, J. (2008). Dave Krupke: What Exactly is Visual Phonics? Communication Disorders Quarterly, 29(3), 177-182.

Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia. New York: Knopf.

Snow, M. & Morrison, D. (1991, Oct. 18). See The Sound: Eliminating Phonetic Roadblocks to Literature. Presentation at IRA Northern Plains Regional Conference.SIL International 2009

What is the Alphabetic Principle? (1999). Retrieved from

© 2010  Dave Krupke  All Rights Reserved