On Sight Words

Whole word methods teach every word as a sight word, one word at a time, without teaching students the sounds in these words. This can cause problems for many students. However, many of the newer phonics programs also use an alarming number of sight words. Of the 220 most commonly taught Dolch sight words, 150 are completely phonetic and can be easily learned by sound. For the other 70 words, 68 conform to simple patterns of exceptions and can be taught phonetically. The Fry 100 sight words or "instant words" are also commonly taught, and all but 12 of them are contained on the Dolch list. Of these 12 Fry sight words, 9 are completely phonetic and the other 3 have simple exceptions. Sight words should not be taught at all in a pure phonics program that teaches by sound. They should merely be taught phonetically along with other words.

Both the Fry and Dolch sight word lists are based on whole word methods and are high frequency words. For a good explanation of the nature and history of these sight words lists, see Comparing the Dolch and Fry High Frequency Word Lists by Readsters.

Recent brain research has found that the adult brain of good readers does not process words as wholes, but instead, as Stanislas Dehaene explains in his article, The Massive Impact of Literacy on the Brain, by analyzing the individual letters and letter teams at the same time in a "massively parallel architecture." [1] The speed of this parallel processing led early researchers to believe that the brain was processing the words as a whole, but recent brain research using more powerful technology has found the opposite. Too many words taught as wholes by sight encourages the symptoms of dyslexia. Sounding every word out from left to right helps encourage proper left to right eye movement while reading. [2]

For further explanation of how sight words can encourage the symptoms of dyslexia and an explanation of the nature of sound and how our brains learn to process the sounds in words, see the dyslexia page. To learn more about sight words, you can watch the sight word movie in QuickTime format or in YouTube format. More videos are in aYouTube sight word playlist. Also, Don Potter has an excellent sight word web page explaining the harm that sight words can do.

Many remedial students have developed guessing habits from too many sight words. Dr. Linnea Ehri in Systematic Phonics Instruction: Findings of the National Reading Panel talks about this problem as well:

…when phonics instruction is introduced after students have already acquired some reading skill, it may be more difficult to step in and influence how they read, because it requires changing students' habits. For example, to improve their accuracy, students may need to suppress the habit of guessing words based on context and minimal letter cues, to slow down, and to examine spellings of words more fully when they read them. Findings suggest that using phonics instruction to remediate reading problems may be harder than using phonics at the earliest point to prevent reading difficulties.

Here are some of these 150 phonetic "sight words:"

be, he, me, she, we
an, can, ran
got, hot, not
ate, make, take
see, green, keep, sleep, three

Shown below is a portion of a table from Raymond E. Laurita's article, Basic Sight Vocabulary - A Help or A Hindrance?

"This table contains words selected from the Dolch Basic Sight Vocabulary List which have configurational similarity and have the potential to contribute to the development of visual response patterning which is unreliable and confused."


This chart below shows how sight words are normally taught in schools--alphabetically and split across grade levels. Simple short vowel phonetically regular words are in blue. Note the separation of an and can across grade levels. You can see the full chart here.


The portion of this table below shows these same Dolch sight words arranged by their phonetic patterns. You can see the full table here.


Here are some other commonly taught sight words and the rules and explanations for how to sound them out phonetically:

Words with one vowel mushed to the schwa sound of uh (occurs especially often in words that begin with a or with the letter o followed by m, n, or v [3]):
again, about, around, away, what, from, come, some, done, love

Words with ve at the end. Words in English will not end in v, so words with ve at the end may be either short or long:
give, live, have (Live can be pronounced either long or short depending on its usage.)

Words with consonant pair substitutions (z sound for s, v sound for f). If you say each of these sounds, you’ll note that they are very close sounds. They are pronounced with the mouth in the same position, but the first of each pair is voiced and the second is unvoiced.
as, has, is his, use, does, of (does also has the vowel sound mushed to uh)

This word has a schwa sound of uh and a consonant pair substitution of z for s:

This word is regular with its long e sound before words beginning with vowels. Before words beginning with consonants, the e sound will mush to the schwa sound of uh:
the (long e in the end, uh sound in the bears)

This word is similiar to the. It is generally mushed to the schwa sound of uh; however, it will retain its long sound when used for emphasis.
a (usually uh sound, long a sound for emphasis, use an before words beginning with vowels.)

These words have one vowel sound off from their expected sound, oo as in moo instead of long o (who also has wh as h; wh is often pronounced h before words that follow the wh with o, for example, whole, whose, and whom) :
to, do, who

This word also has one vowel sound different from what would be expected, an oo sound as in foot instead of a short u sound:

Here are some more words that are just one vowel sound off:
because, been, could, pretty, said, shall, you; never, seven, upon, only

To teach a word that has a sound change from what would be expected, have your student sound the word out after explaining the exception. For example, for said you say, "ai normally makes the long a sound, ay. In this word it makes the short e sound of eh. Then, you sound it out for them: /s/ /e/ /d/" Then, have them try to sound it out. The word has should be approached the same way: "s normally says sss, in this word it makes the z sound, /z/." Then, you sound it out for them: /h/ /a/ /z/ and then the student sounds it out.

These words used to be spelled with an e at the end. The e was lost, but their long vowel sound remains. This is especially common in words with i or o before 2 consonants:
kind, find; old, cold, hold; both

These words are often taught as sight words, but actually, they are completely phonetic. The or in wor is normally pronounced er as in her, the a in words starting with wa is pronounced ah as in saw, and the ar sound in words like warm is pronounced like or in for. (Regional variations in pronunciation may occur, especially for vowels before an "r" or an "l.")
word, work, worth
want, wash
warm, ward, war

These words have silent letters: kn and wr often have the first letter silent as in knit, knot or wrap, wrong, wrung:
would, know, write, eight, are, before

These 3 words are irregular, but have some sense to them:
two, buy, laugh (two and buy are what Margret Bishop in "The ABCs and All Their Tricks" calls "very short words," which "must be padded with silent letters to attain the three-letter minimum." Laugh has gh as f and au changed to the short vowel sound of a.)

Here are 2 words that are so irregular that they actually do have to be taught as sight words, although the second word can be taught as following the pattern of the first with a c sounding as s because it’s before i, e, or y:
one, once


You can learn 230 of the 232 "sight words" the easy way--by sounding them out! As explained at Logic of English, this not only easier, but more efficient. Below is a PDF file of the 232 sight words arranged in their sound spelling patterns. The 159 completely regular "sight words" are on the first page. The second page has words that can be easily learned with the rules explained above. The words in bold with a + symbol are the 12 Fry words that are on the Fry 100 word list but not the Dolch list. The second file shows how Dolch sight words are commonly taught in schools, with the phonetically regular words scattered across grade levels and even within grade levels, as they are commonly arranged alphabetically, not by their sound-spelling patterns. The third file shows the Dolch sight words in Unified Pronouncing Print (UPP), so that you can easily see how to sound them out. This file is also arranged by sound-spelling pattern, but it includes additional words that are not sight words to show the pattern. Words that are not sight words are in brackets in this file. You can also use the pdf document Teach Sight Words Faster, a short explanation of how and why to learn the sight words faster along with a 52 week plan to learn the sight words.

Anyone reading below the 12th grade level can be helped by learning how to sound out and spell words syllable by syllable with Webster's Blue Backed Speller. To find out if your student has been taught too many sight words, you can have them take the MWIA, a test that measures the speed of reading holistic sight words verses a group of regular phonetic words. If your student reads the Holistic words more than 10% slower than the phonetic words or misses more phonetic words than holistic words, they could benefit from phonics instruction.

Sight Words by Sound
Sight Words as commonly taught in schools
Sight Words in UPP

New! Phonetic sight word bookmarks, a bookmark version of the "Sight Words by Sound" PDF above.

1. Dehaene, Stanislas, "The Massive Impact of Literacy on the Brain and its Consequences for Education," Human Neuroplasticity and Education, 2011, p. 23 [Note: Stanislas Dehaene's 2009 book "Reading in the Brain" has a more detailed explanations and compares many different studies.]

2. Mosse, Hilde L, M.D., "The Complete Handbook of Children's Reading Disorders," 1982. Vol I, p. 83 - 84, 137 - 139.

3. Hanna, Paul R, Richard E. Hodges, and Jean S. Hanna, "Spelling: Structure and Strategies," 1971. p.44: " During the Middle English period, a certain type of angular writing was in vogue which resulted in some ambiguity for the reader when u was followed by an m, n, or u (sometimes written v or w.) Consequently, scribes replaced the u with o, and that spelling is retained in some words used today, e.g. come, monk, love, tongue, some, honey, son.