Beyond Flashcards: How to Teach Sight Words Creatively

“Sight words are boring!”

They certainly can be… but they don’t have to be.

How to Teach Sight Words CreativelyWhen children are learning to read a huge emphasis is placed on the alphabet – working on letters and their corresponding sounds (think phonics).

However, another very important component of developing a successful reader is learning sight words.

You may know them by many other names such as dolch, fry, high-frequency, trick, snap, red, and word wall words.

Google any of these words and you’re sure to come across lists upon lists of words.

My goal is not to provide you with yet another list of words, but to answer the important questions:

  • What are sight words?
  • Why are they important?
  • What effective methods can I use to make sure my child learns these words?
  • How can I make sight words fun and engaging?

I’ll show you why these words are so important (and why they’re called so many things!) and how to teach sight words in a way that’s fun for your child (and you) and effective.

What Are Sight Words?

Children are taught how to read by learning to recognize symbols (letters and group of letters) and associating them with sounds (phonemes).  Students can then sound out words and have a strategy to figure out unfamiliar words that they come across – phonics!

However, alongside this approach children also learn to memorize certain words to facilitate their fluency as a reader.  These are called sight words.  Students memorize these words for a variety of reasons:

  • they are irregular – don’t follow phonics rules – and cannot be sounded out (of, the, was)
  • they commonly occur in books (he, to, are, that, have) so knowing them instantly will
    • save a child time when reading by not having to “figure out” frequently occurring words
    • allow a child to read a significant % of books/texts by knowing only a handful of words

There is not one list of words that your child must absolutely know (see below), but most educators would agree on the vast majority of words students should learn and in roughly the same order (simple to complex words).

Are They Sight Words or Dolch Words… or Wait, High-Frequency Words?

As mentioned above, sight words can be called by many different names.  What you call them is up to you, or your child’s teacher, or the reading program that your child’s school is following.

Many teachers use the Word Wall in the classroom (literally a physical wall with word cards stuck on it) for sight words so they become “word wall words.”

Other teachers emphasize the important of knowing these words quickly – in a snap! – hence the name “snap words.”

The Orton-Gillingham (OG) reading program calls these “red words” because they do not sound out.  The red alerts the student these words cannot be sounded out.  The reader/writer must draw from his or her memory on how to read/spell them.  These words are usually displayed in red in the classroom.

The Wilson’s FUNdations reading program calls these “trick words.”  Similar to OG, Wilson’s list of words are ones that are irregular and cannot be sounded out.  They don’t follow the rules so they can be very tricky!

The Dolch and Fry words are both high-frequency word lists, meaning the most common words that children are likely to come across when reading.  They happen so often, it’s best just to memorize them.  The lists are usually organized by grade or level so children can work on the list most appropriate to the books that they are reading.

The Dolch list dates back to 1936 (and has remained unchanged) compiled by Dr. Edward William Dolch.  There are two main lists – the more common 220 word list and the 95 word nouns list. The 220 list is organized by grade level (pre-primer to 3rd) so children can work on the list most appropriate to the books that they are reading.

In 1996 Dr. Edward B. Fry updated Dolch’s list and created the Fry 1000 Instant Words.  These words are divided into groups of 25 based on frequency.  His research concluded that 25 words make up 1/3 of all that is published, 100 words make up 1/2, and 300 words make up 65% of all words published.  So if students know the first 300 Fry words, they’re in pretty good shape.

That’s probably more than you wanted to know, so…

Which List is the Best?  Which Should I Choose?

The bottom line is – it doesn’t matter.  If you’re a parent, stay consistent with whatever your child’s school or teacher is using. Email your child’s teacher for a copy of the list if he or she hasn’t already given it to you.

If you’re a teacher, make sure the list you use (and the order you introduce the words) matches what the other teachers at your grade level are using.  In addition, make sure your school has a systematic progression of sight words throughout the years – collaboration between grade levels is also key.

If you’re a tutor, teacher, home-school educator, or are looking to supplement whatever you’re child is learning at school (maybe the list of words at school is too easy or progressing too slowly for your child) below are my suggestions when choosing sight words.

When working with kids with reading difficulties, I always try to make my work compliment what is going on at the child’s school. However, that being said, what the school is using may not always be the best for a particular child.  So frequently I am coming up with different sight word lists to help my students.

Here is my method for deciding what words are important:

1.  Irregular Words

Because I usually work with students with language based disorders (such as dyslexia), I place a huge emphasis on phonics.  Therefore, if a word does not sound out, I want the student to memorize it and know it immediately.

The student needs to differentiate these words from others and not waste valuable time trying to sound out a word that does not make sense. Words like “of,” “the,” “was,” and “said” are high priority in my lists.

2.  Two-Letter Words

If a child is constantly trying to figure out two-letter words, he will never achieve fluency.  Imagine how tedious it must be for a child to have to work to figure out every single word on a page every time she’s reading – not to mention discouraging.  Whether they sound out or not, students should be able to immediately read two-letter words (he, we, to, at, in, go, on, my).

In addition, learning to recognize these words often helps students see these words inside of bigger words.  This helps them to “chunk” words and have greater success (and confidence) figuring out longer words. Knowing “at” helps a child read “cat,” “bat,” “fat,” etc.

3.  High-Frequency Words with an Individual Twist

I fill in the rest of the words on my list with other high-frequency words moving from simple to complex (shorter to longer words).  In addition, I take into account what the student likes to write about.  If a word is constantly coming up in a student’s writing (often “went” is a popular one as students write journal entries about past events) I include that on the word list.

When I work with students, sight words are more than just fluency in reading but also fluency in writing.  I make sure students not only recognize and read these words instantaneously, but also spell them correctly without thinking twice.

Now that you know what sight words are all about the question is…

How to Teach Sight Words?

There’s no way around it.  Kids need to memorize sight words.  I’ve got lots of fun sight word activities for you, but sight words first need to be introduced in a clear, systematic way.

How to Introduce New Sight Words: Techniques That Work

Simple Assessments: What Words Does the Child Know?

Once you’ve decided on a beginning set of about 25 words, the first step is to find out if your child knows them already. Cycle through each word one at a time and have your child read the card.

You can easily write words on 3×5 index cards, or you can quickly type and print them on the editable PDF I use to make sight word cards for all my students (and more free resources) by clicking here.

If your child…

  • Reads the word immediately – in 1 second –  discard the word because your child knows it.
  • Does not read the word in 3 seconds, tell him the word and put in a save pile.
  • Does not read the word immediately but in under 3 seconds, put in the save pile.*

*Your child may master this word very soon but until your child can read it without thinking about it, you should still be working on that word.  The goal of sight words is to read them automatically, saving students mental energy for more difficult reading tasks.

Repeat the steps above periodically to assess which sight words your child has mastered and know when to move on to new words.  You can also hang on to the words your child has mastered and move on to learning to spell these words.

Introduce Only 3 New Words At a Time

If you’re trying to decide how many sight words to introduce at once, it’s always better to err on the side of less.  It’s better for a student to really know a few words well than be exposed to a lot of different words but have trouble remembering them.

In Kindergarten, we teachers found it best to introduce one word a week with a total of 25 words for the school year.  This is less than many other schools; however, our students were expected to read and spell these words correctly without hesitation – and this turned out to be a attainable goal for 90% of the students.

Try introducing 3 new words a week.  If this seems to much – your child is having difficulty reading them in less than 3 seconds at the end of the week – scale back.  The more exposure the child has to the word – especially reading in context – the faster she will master the word.

Separate Similar Looking Words (has/had; come/came)

Do not introduce visually similar words at the same time.  This is most important for students with language-based disorders or any child who is showing difficulty visually discriminating between different letters.

For example, I had one student who easily confused “a” and “o” and often sounded out words in the wrong order “cat” would be “tac” or “act.” Help the student master one word first before introducing another that looks just like it or she’ll constantly be confusing the two.

However, once both words are introduced – say “has” and “had” – do expose the child to these words at the same time so she practices discriminating between the two.

Teach the New, Review the Old –  in Under 3 Minutes!

Everyday, or however often you work with your child or student, review the sight words.  Hold up the flashcard, say the word, then have the child repeat the word.

Then place the word cards on the table.  Say one of the words and have your child find and point to that word.

Finally, pick up the pile of words and cycle through them again this time having the child say the word without your help. However, like the assessment, if the child does not say the word within 3 seconds tell him or her and move on.

Prominently Display the Words

Make sure the words are available for your child to see everyday. I always put up a HUGE poster (2’x3′) of the week’s word in the classroom.

In addition, it was on the classroom door – “This week’s word!” – and on the Word Wall. Children were sent home with magnets of the words to post on the refrigerator for reference and play!

Now for the Fun! – How to Teach Sight Words Creatively

How to Teach Sight Words - theI’m  a huge proponent of multi-sensory approaches when it comes to teaching.  Not only is it fun for children but the more senses you engage the better a child will learn something and commit it to memory.  Below are some of my favorite activites to practice sight words with children.

Write the Word in New Ways

Whenever writing sight words – no matter the medium – have the child say the name of each letter as he spells it.  Have him underline the word when he is done, saying the name of the word.  “t,” “h,” “e,” (as he writes the letters)… “the!” (as he underlines the word.

In addition, always write the words in lowercase.  Children will rarely ever see (or write) these words in capital letters so it’s not very helpful to practice them that way.


These activities are perfect for those rambunctious youngster who can’t sit still.  It’s also a great way to wake up the brain after sitting and helps kids work on crossing the midline.

1. Sky Writing – Stand up and extend your dominant arm all the way out in front of you.  Pointing with two fingers, spell the word in the air starting from the left side of the body all the way to the right.  Make the letters at least two feet high!

2. Side Walk Chalk  – Write really big sight words on the sidewalk, driveway or playground.

3. Easel Painting – Standing at a large easel, make a separate painting for each letter of the sight word.  Making these large brush strokes is fantastic for crossing the midline.

Tactile/Fine Motor Development

Write the word with your finger in…

  • colored sand on a plastic lunch tray
  • shaving cream on a cookie sheet

Write on different surfaces with different writing utensils…

  • chalk on a chalkboard
  • dry erase markers on a whiteboard
  • crayon on paper overtop a piece of sandpaper

Create the Word Out of Different Materials

Create large (8.5″x11″) laminated sight word cards with bolded letters – like a placemat.  Then choose your medium and have the student form the letters of the sight word on top of the card.

1. Play Dough – Buy or make your own – I definitely think homemade is the best!

2. Wikki Stix  –  These fun sticks are reusable and great for helping strengthen fine motor skills.

3. Model Magic – After making the word, let the letters dry and save them in a plastic bag with the sight word card.  At a later time, have the student open the bag and spell the sight word by correctly arranging the letters.

Don’t have access to a laminator?  You could:

  • Go to FedEx Office.  They have easy to use laminating sheets.
  • Write on a piece of 8.5″x11″ paper and put in a clear sheet protector
  • Write on an index card and cover with clear packing tape

 Play Games

Here are some fun twists on the traditional flashcard.  These activities require some knowledge of the sight words and are a great way for kids to practice what they know and for adults to assess their knowledge.

1. Go Fish – Make playing cards for 26 sight words in sets of two (52 cards total).  Write on index cards or print your own – get the easy sight word card maker PDF here – on cardstock.  Make sure you cannot read through the cards by using either thick, colored paper or a light colored font or pencil.  Play by traditional Go Fish rules.

2. Memory – Make playing cards for anywhere from 5 to 20 sight words – remember to make 2 cards for each word.  Write on index cards or print your own.  Again, make sure you cannot read through the cards by using either thick, colored paper or a light colored font or pencil.  Make a uniform array of cards face down

3. Bingo –  This game is great for students who already have a good base of sight words memorized. Choose at least 24 words. Write or print a drawing stack of cards.  Then create your own bingo cards.  Need help? Get the free easy Bingo card creator!  Use pennies, paper clips, or small toys for chips.

Let Me Make it Easy for You!

Click here to get free access to the sight word flashcard creator and easy bingo card creator – plus many more freebies! Or play around with sight words on our free app Ollie’s Handwriting & Phonics for iPad.

12 Replies to “Beyond Flashcards: How to Teach Sight Words Creatively”

  1. I love this sight! A lot of great ideas about teaching sight words and how to teach them in fun, multisensory ways. I have used the techniques created by Jan Richardson to teach sight words. There are four steps.

    Step #1: Show the word on a whiteboard or chalkboard. Students orally spell word. Then turn board away from students and erase a letter. Then show students and ask what is missing. When student gives correct letters or letters, write it/them on board to complete the word. Example: said – first erase the s, then erase sa, then erase id, then erase sai, then erase d, then erase said.

    Step #2: Students make the word with magnetic letters then do mix and fix. They make the word, slow check it with their finger and eyes, mix the letters up, then fix them again. Repeat the mix and fix at least 3 times.

    Step #3: Students sky write word, then write on table with finger (this is especially helpful if your tables/desks are slightly textured).

    Step #4: Students write on whiteboard.

    All four steps must be done (in that order). It helps the students build visual memory of the word so they can read and write the words automatically every time. It has been a truly effective method for my first graders and kindergarteners. For my kindergarteners, all were behind grade level in March of the school year (this is when I took over the class). Using the above techniques, all of them were on or slightly above grade level by June.

    Google Jan Richardson and check out her website. She has videos and explanations. I have also used her methods for teaching guided reading and they truly work.

  2. In my student teaching classroom, we taped sight words on big dice. Whatever word the student rolled, they had to say that word, and then they could write it down.

    We also did Sight Word Candyland. Just use the regular game and tape sight words on the cards. If the student gets the word right, they get to move to that space.

    We also used letter magnets to spell out sight words as well as used stamps in Playdough to spell out the words.

    These creative methods really work! My student teaching students improved so much over the course of a few weeks!

    1. These are some great ideas! I love hearing creative lessons that really help children improve. Thanks for sharing, Katelyn!

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