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[Foundational Literacy] 3 Questions About Sight Words Answered

[Foundational Literacy] 3 Questions About Sight Words Answered

There’s nothing quite like watching a student crack the code on reading, but the process of teaching those fundamental literacy skills is not without its challenges. While budding readers begin to explore new words and sounds to develop their literacy skills, they’re bound to get stuck every now and again. The trouble comes when readers encounter common words that are difficult to sound out phonetically.

Often referred to as high-frequency words or sight words, they are critical to reading success, and the methods for teaching them have evolved in recent years. Let’s explore three essential questions about sight words to help understand their value in research-based phonics instruction. 

Why is it so important to teach sight words, and how do they fit into evidence-based reading instruction? 

Sight words are words that appear most commonly in reading and writing. There are two main categories of sight words: high-frequency words (and, it, cat) and words that are phonetically irregular, or cannot be decoded with traditional phonics rules, (are, said). These lists of common words make up an estimated 75 percent of all words in books, and they are essential for a new reader to be familiar with to make it through even the most basic reading practice. They’ve historically been taught through rote memorization and drilling flashcards throughout the early elementary years. While this method works well for some, it yields poor results for many struggling readers. The science of reading instructional practices present another way forward—one that can better serve all students.  

Put simply, there are hundreds of sight words to learn! For years, teachers took their lists and divided them up into categories based on text frequency, regardless of the phonics rules they may have followed. This meant that students could be learning one at the same time they might be practicing play. There was no phonics connection, and therefore, memorization was the only way forward.  

Upon closer inspection, however, many sight words have sound-spelling correspondences, and they can be successfully taught in related phonics-based lessons. For this reason, you now see educators taking their tried-and-true lists and organizing them into phonics-based groupings. Take the word with, for example that uses the digraph “th.” This sight word might be introduced in the context of a larger “th” digraph lesson, thus building an essential decoding skill and giving students phonics knowledge they can apply to related words with the same sound-spelling correspondence. Other irregular words might still require memorization, but the list of words to apply this approach with is now much shorter and manageable. 

Becoming a skilled reader with a huge repertoire of sight words requires knowledge of phonemic segmentation, letter-sound correspondences, and spelling patterns. Essentially, it requires true phonics instruction, and studies in the science of reading are bringing greater success for struggling and advanced readers alike.

What are the most trusted sight word lists available?

There is no “official” sight word list, although two of the most widely accepted high-frequency word lists used when teaching sight words to students are likely to sound familiar: The Dolch list and the Fry list.


The Dolch list was compiled by Dr. Edward William Dolch in the 1930s through 1940s. The list contains 220 “service words” and 95 “high-frequency nouns” collected from the most frequently used words in children’s storybooks. The words are meant to be divided into groups by grade level and are used primarily from pre-K to 2nd grade. Dr. Charles Browne and Dr. Brent Culligan developed the “New Dolch List” in 2020 as a list of high-frequency English words designed to aid English language learners. 


Another more modern version of the original Dolch list, the Fry “1000 Instant Words” list was first developed in the 1950s and then revised in the 1980s by Dr. Edward Fry and further revised in 2000. This list contains 1,000 words from all parts of speech that most commonly appear in reading material. 

While each list compiles words from different age-appropriate reading materials, together, they have many words in common. takes the top 100 words from the Dolch list and the Fry list and finds a combined total of 130 unique words; all words on the Dolch 100 list appear on the Fry "1,000 Instant Words" list.

One list is not necessarily better than the other, and ultimately, just as every emerging reader’s journey is unique, the benefits of sticking to one list over another, mixing and matching, or creating your own sight word list will depend on the individual student. 

How can technology support sight word instruction?

Online learning programs can be incorporated that leverage the science of reading strategies to teaching sight words.

Exact Path

Our K–12 diagnostic-driven, individualized learning program, Exact Path, is a powerful resource to diagnose individual learning needs, provide just-in-time instruction, and measure growth over time. Phonics-driven lessons for early elementary students expressly use the science of reading principles to ensure literacy success. This involves folding in high-frequency word practice and including decodable readers in the context of related phonics concepts. 

Want to take some of these new content modules for a spin? Learn more about our K–2 experience and explore content samples

Reading Eggs

Edmentum’s online learn-to-read solution Reading Eggs focuses on developing foundational skills for your pre-K through 6th grade students in a fun, game-like learning environment. A variety of unique learning areas explore the five essential pillars of reading with significant focus placed on phonics skills, including explicit sight word instruction.

In the  Fast Phonics area of the program, students can engage in sequenced lessons that teach systematic, explicit phonics skills. Each set of lessons includes a focus on a specific set of letters, sounds, and word families paired with decodable books and a short list of accompanying high-frequency words that students will intentionally practice to build automaticity.

Reading Eggs lessons feature their very own sequence for introducing sight words, created after carefully consulting the Dolch and Fry sight words lists, as well as other reputable educational sources. In lower-grade-level lessons, students are slowly introduced to simple sight words like “I,” “am,” and “a.” Words are repeated throughout activities and used in leveled reading passages so that students familiarize themselves with the words in different situations. The Driving Tests area gives students the option to test on sight words, letters and sounds, or content words. The game rewards students for successfully mastering a test with 60 seconds of play in a race car game. And, you can easily monitor students’ progress in learning sight words through detailed student reports.

Interested in learning more about how a healthy dose of systematic, explicit phonics instruction helps build the foundation for successful reading and, ultimately, greater academic success across all subject areas? Check out our blog post, The “Science of Reading” and What It Means for Your Classroom.

This post was originally published June 2017 by McKenna Wierman and has been updated. 

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Madison Michell

Madison Michell has been a member of the Edmentum team since 2014 and currently serves as a Marketing Manager. As a former Kindergarten and 3rd grade teacher during her time as a Teach For America corps member, she believes education truly has the power to transform lives. She is passionate about connecting educators with online programs, best practices, and research that improve teaching and learning for today's students.