How to Teach Sight Words According to the Science of Reading

September 7, 2021

Today, I want to share 3 fun and effective activities to teach students how to read sight words. If you’ve been hearing a lot about the Science of Reading lately, you are not alone! The Science of Reading has been around for decades, but there seems to be a bit of “buzz” around it right now as teachers are closely looking at their teaching practice in the classroom.

With sight words in mind, many teachers (self-included) used to call them “snap” words and really try to skill and drill these words into our students’ minds with memorization practice! While rote memorization works for some of our students, the 3 activities I share today align with the research behind the Science of Reading and they’re meant to be simple and fun! As a teacher, you should be able to watch this video, see how to use the activities, then use them in your own classroom right away!

In case you want to watch/listen to this information, feel free to watch the video I made for YouTube below. It includes all the same content but in video format:

Alright, let’s dive on in!

One thing to consider is that for a long time, teachers thought sight words were words that couldn’t be sounded out and instead, needed to be memorized whole so students could recognize them on sight. That’s actually not true, and many sight words CAN be sound out or at the very least, have many recognizable patterns that can be sound out by students.

As David Kilpatrick shares, when a student memorizes a sight word, what they’ve actually done is memorized the sequence of letters they see in a word. A sight word can be a high-frequency word (think Dolch and Fry), but realistically a sight word is ANY word your students have come to recognize by sight! So all the activities shared below can be used for any words you want to teach your students!


1. Phoneme Mapping

The first activity I want to share for sight words is phoneme mapping. In this activity, students will map out the sounds they hear in a word and eventually add in the graphemes (letters) for each sound as well!

Remember, many of the words on our high-frequency word list actually include patterns we teach. For example, the words think, when, how, just, can. With these regularly spelled sight words, you will want to do this process in a few steps:

First, say the word aloud, “with” and have students repeat it back.

Then, have students count out the phonemes they hear in the word /w/ /i/ and /th/ and they can hear it has 3 different sounds. I would then show students the letters (or graphemes) that represent each phoneme they hear in the sound. I like to do this using sound boxes and play-dough or counters because we can add a little multi-sensory fun into the activity. If you were using the high-frequency word, first. It would have 4 boxes and students would follow the same steps with /f/ /ir/ /s/ /t/.

Now, you might be wondering, what do we do with the irregularly spelled sight words?!

Words like said and some can still use phoneme-grapheme mapping and it is beneficial because we know that students aren’t memorizing the word as a whole, but instead, they are memorizing the sequence of letters/sounds. The word said, for example, has a regular /s/ sound and the beginning and a regular /d/ sound at the end, so we can let students see that right off the bat. The only sound they will need to memorize is the irregular /e/ sound that ai is making in the word. To help students see this sound is irregular, I like to use the heart-word strategy and put a heart around the irregular sounds.

You see all about the heart-word strategy from Really Great Reading by heading over to their blog post about it: heart word strategy for sight words. When students are looking at the high-frequency words above, they can quickly see that first is spelled regularly and they will learn all the phonics patterns they need to spell and read that word and that the word, said, has one irregular sound to memorize!


2. Teach Sight Words with a Multi-Sensory Approach

Research has shown for a long time now that students don’t all learn in just one way. Children learn best when they can use different parts of their brain through a multisensory approach and use the four learning modalities (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile).

To help you brainstorm some ideas for teaching these words with a multisensory approach would be to use something like “skywriting.” After doing an activity like phoneme-mapping above, you could have students practice skywriting the words. To do this, they would hold their arm high up in the sky and simply write out the words in the sky.

Some other ways include using these finger lights! I talk about how I love this tool in my favorite literacy tools for small group reading post, but for this students can simply wear the light and “write” the word on their desk, on the wall, or on some dark construction paper! For a really fun, albeit messy, activity, kids love tracing letters and words into some shaving cream spread out on their desk!

Now it is important to remember that as you are doing these multi-sensory activities, you are still emphasizing that sound-letter connection. You want students to be able to think about the phonemes they are hearing in each word before they start memorizing each letter.

For some other multi-sensory learning ideas, I like to use letter magnets! Now word-building with letter tiles or magnets is nothing new, but an activity I like to with letter magnets is as follows:

After I have already taught the high-frequency word, some, for example, I will show the class how it is spelled with the letter magnets. Now without them looking (have them close their eyes or turn the whiteboard around), I will either switch some letters around (soem) or remove a letter altogether (soe). Then, I ask students “what is wrong?” This gives students an opportunity to think about what they know about the word and the way it is spelled and figure out what might be wrong when they see the word spelled incorrectly.  This has students really reflecting on the order of the letters in words they will see often!

Now naturally, you will only want to do this to further progress students’ knowledge about a word so you will want to do an activity like this one after students have practiced some of the previously taught sight word activities!

Last, but certainly not least, add some songs into your sight word teaching! You can use some Jack Hartmann song or use a popular jingle (B-I-N-G-O!) and have students spell their newly learned words to that tune. Now, like the magnet activity above, I wouldn’t start with students learning the word this way, but it’s a great way to have students practice their sight words in another fun way!


3. Compare, Sort, & Match Sight Words by Sound

The last SOR-aligned sight word activity I wanted to share today is to have students compare, sort, & match sight words by sound!

Now, to have students learn how to do this, I like to model this whole group with all my students. Here is an example of 6 words I chose from the Dolch 1st grade high-frequency word list. I chose these words because some have matching beginning, middle, and final sounds. After doing a few of the previously mentioned activities, I would ask students to take a look at the words and see if they can find any that have matching beginning sounds:

You can see above that him and had both start with /h/ and let and live both start with /l/.

I would ask students do any have the same middle sound? Him, live, and think have the /i/ sound. And lastly, both him and from end in /m/. When doing an activity like this one, I would point out one or two matches and then give students lots of think time to read the words and see if they can also find matches.

If you give students sight word cards to practice independently, having them sort and group their sight words by sounds. There is really no wrong way to have them match the words by sound as long as they’re correctly identifying the sounds they hear in each word!


Another way to have students practice matching sounds is with the game memory. Instead of students flipping their cards over to find the matching WORD (with – with). They would flip over two words with the same sounds (beginning, middle, or end).

As I am sure you may be noticing, all these activities are really trying to help students focus on the SOUNDS in each word and not just the letters. Scientifically speaking, students are better able to recognize and memorize these sight words when they are able to quickly locate and identify the grapheme-phoneme connection rather than just memorizing a series of letters or the word as a whole.

I hope this post gives you some ideas for how to teach sight words in your own classroom!

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  • Which list of sight words do you use? We have been trying to determine if the “Science of Reading” has a different list than Fry, Dolce, or F&P.

  • Thank you for amazing resources, love the morning messages. I would love to see more morning messages and sight words as some of my students are on alphabet yet.