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How Should I Teach Sight Words?

I used to tell the parents of my students that sight words were words that could not be sounded out. When my students would start sounding out a sight word, I would stop them and tell them they couldn't read it that way.  I taught these words as basically whole words…the spelling just needed to be memorized.  I have since learned that teaching these words as primarily whole units to be memorized visually, inhibits the way the brain actually stores and learns these words. It’s actually critical that students match the individual sounds of the word with their visual representations. This process is known as orthographic mapping.  Any time we draw a student’s attention to only the spelling of the word, in a rote memorization fashion, we are inhibiting the orthographic mapping process. In other words, they need to sound it out…even when the spelling is not phonetically regular.

Because of this I have completely changed the way I approach sight words. I’d like to share my current plan for teaching these tricky words.  I’m still perfecting the process and tweaking things to get the best results. Feel free to chime in with your own suggestions.  This part of my routine I learned from the EBLI training I received this fall. I’m really grateful for this training…I had read about orthographic mapping last spring in David Kilpatrick’s books…but when I saw the way EBLI taught sight words (and all words), it really hit me! This is facilitating orthographic mapping!

The first thing I want to make sure I do is have my students pay attention to the sounds in the word.  So I don’t show them the word first. I SAY the word. 

“Today we’ll be learning the word: said.  Listen: said (say it slow). How many sounds do you hear in the word said?”

Students say the sounds, while I hold up a finger for each sound, /s/ /e/ /d/.

“Good. I’m going to say the sounds again while I write the sound lines.”

I draw a line on my white board for each sound as I say them aloud /s/ /e/ /d/.
“Now I want you to say the sounds while you write the sound lines on your white board.”

Then students once again segment the sounds while drawing a line for each sound on their individual boards.

Now I show them the spelling of the word. -Note that I haven’t shown them the visual word up until this point. Sometimes I like to get a little dramatic as I unveil the word.  -Especially for really irregular ones…my students died laughing when I revealed the spelling for “of” and showed the shock and craziness of the word with my expressions.

I show them the word “said” and ask, “What’s the /s/ spelling?”

The students reply with “s” and I say and write /s/ on my first sound line. 
“Now I want you to say /s/ as you write it on the first sound line.” Students write the letter s while saying the sound it makes.

Then I ask, “Which letters do you think spell the /e/ sound?”

I write “ai” on the second sound line while saying /e/. I have students say as they write the /e/ spelling.
Finally I ask students which letter spells the /d/ spelling and we say and write the d on the third sound line.
We take some time to reflect on the spellings and note any unusual ones.  In this case, only the /e/ spelling is tricky.  I have the students circle the “ai” on the second sound line and have them put two lines underneath it (because two letters spell that sound).
Next, we use our fingers to erase the letters, but leave the lines and circles. 
I cover up my “said” card and have the students try to write the word from memory.
Lastly, we erase everything (letters, lines, circles) and write the word again with no visual cues.
If we come across a sight word in a text we are reading and they don't know the word...I don't just tell them the word.  Instead, I have them sound it out...and when we come to the tricky part, I will tell them the sound.  For example, if they came across "said",  I would simply say, "In this word, the ai is going to say /e/."  Then I'd have them sound it out, making sure they say /e/ for ai.

For a lot of students, this process is enough for them to learn these words.  But for others, I need to go into the sight word method I learned in my Orton-Gillingham Training.  More on that coming…

*Update: Check it out this link for info on training from EBLI on this process:


  1. I like this a lot. Thanks!! The two lines underneath the digraph - brilliant. Such a little tweak but I know it will be effective for some kids.

  2. I will be trying this when I go back to school in the new year. Thank you!

  3. This is amazing! Love this so much, I learned a lot here

  4. Thanks for sharing! I am a middle school teacher but also have a son currently in kindergarten and I can't wait to show him this. I have also seen where you put a heart around the tricky part to say we have to memorize the spelling of that sound by heart which I thought was super cute. I think I will show him the heart and the lines. Thanks!

    1. I love the heart! But with a room full of kinders, it's just time consuming and hard for them to draw a heart. :) But if working 1-1 and your son can do it, I'd go for it!

  5. I'm curious about one detail in the procedure- when students say the sound and write the letter/letters that are making that sound, do you have them name the letters as they write it or say just the sound (ie. students say "ai" when writing, or /e/ for the "ai" in "said"). I recently watched a webinar hosted by EBLI, and I think she demonstrated by just saying the sounds as she wrote the irregular spelling "ai" rather than naming those two letters. I'm just trying to figure out best practices to support orthographic mapping! Thanks!

    1. Yes, we just say the sounds. :)

  6. I’d love to see a post on your OG method!!

  7. The link isn’t working but I really like your ideas. Thanks.

  8. Would also love to see your post on OG.

  9. Thank you , you have given me a lot of food for thought, regarding sight words.


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