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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 begin to encounter common words that can’t be sounded out phonetically or easily defined.

Taking time to explain each new pronunciation or spelling rule (or exception) every time your readers encounter an unknown word can be time-consuming and confusing for the learner. But, how can you expect to teach children to read a book like The Cat in the Hat if they don’t understand common devices like the “th” sound? The answer is teaching sight words. Let’s explore three critical questions about sight words to help understand their value in phonics instruction.

Why is it so important to teach sight words?

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 non-phonetic, (the, of, one, meaning they can’t always be “sounded out” and aren’t easily represented by pictures. For example, two common sight words, “know” and “only” fit this mold; they are not easily definable and follow phonetic rules a new reader might not be familiar with yet. But, they are essential for a new reader to be familiar with to make it through even the most basic reading practice.

It is widely accepted that high-frequency sight words are the words most commonly found written text, with some estimates suggesting these sight words make up an estimated 75 percent of all words in books. While some would argue that by learning these words, a student will be able to read most newspapers and children’s books, sight words are just another ingredient in the recipe for learning to read, and should be a supplemental component to phonics instruction.

It’s critical for students to develop automaticity when reading sight words early on in their literacy development. Without explicit instruction, students struggling with sight words could become frustrated and discouraged with the process of reading altogether, making them less likely to spend time and energy developing more advanced phonics skills. Not to mention, sight words make up most of the words readers will encounter as they develop their literacy skills. Failure to develop sight word recognition could seriously hold back emerging readers.

The good news? As the name suggests, sight words can be taught through frequent practice and careful scaffolding. This allows readers to spend less time trying to sound out words with unusual spelling rules or phonetic irregularities, making reading easier, faster, and more fun.

Foundational literacy practice to help students learn to love reading—sign up for a free trial of Reading Eggs, Reading Eggspress, and Fast Phonics today!

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.


A more modern version of the 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 "1000 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?

Digital learning programs can be incorporated as part of a balanced reading approach to provide an engaging way for young students to build and reinforce literacy skills.

Exact Path

Our K–12 diagnostic-driven, individualized learning program, Exact Path, is a powerful resource to meet students where they are, provide just-in-time instruction, and assess and measure growth over time. Over the last 18 months, our subject-matter experts have launched even more K–2 reading lessons that expressly support high-frequency word practice and include decodable readers.

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. Reading Eggs includes its 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 early Reading Eggs 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.

In a Reading Eggs component called Fast Phonics, 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.

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 and has been updated.'s picture
McKenna Wierman

McKenna Wierman studied Journalism at the University of Mississippi, and has worked with Edmentum since June 2016. She currently serves as a Digital Marketing Specialist, and believes that empowered teachers are the key to successful students.