A small number of words make up a large percentage of the words that appear in print. These are called high frequency words.
It’s important that our students recognize a large number of high frequency words by sight so they can read fluently.
We call these words – the words they recognize instantly without needing to sound out or guess – their sight word vocabulary.
In essence, we want our students to turn high frequency words into their own personal sight words.
Some of these high frequency words are easy to sound out (words like in and can). Others are irregular and don’t follow predictable phonics patterns (words like the and some).
Both Edward Dolch and Edward Fry (yes, both were Edwards!) put together lists of high frequency words several decades ago.
I think Dolch and Fry did us a service by collecting high frequency words.
But they had a real problem when it came to execution.
Dolch and Fry both believed that we should teach students to memorize these high frequency words as wholes.
Yet the majority of these high frequency words can be sounded out … they don’t need to be memorized as whole words at all!
Let’s take a look at sight words organized by phonics skill.
In many schools, beginning readers are expected to memorize long lists of sight words.
Too often, the “sight words” they are expected to learn each week have nothing to do with that week’s phonics skill.
While this is certainly going to happen with irregular words and a few others, our GOAL should be to combine teach high frequency words WITHIN our phonics lessons as much as possible.
Don’t trust the “grade level” sight word lists
The Dolch sight word list of 220 words has been organized by grade level. I used to refer to it often. (In fact, I used to sell my high frequency word practice mats organized by Dolch grade level. Now I just sell them as a single set.)
But there’s nothing sacred about the Dolch grade level sight word lists; there is no reason to follow these leveled lists when choosing what words to teach our students.
For example, the high frequency words “cut,” “got,” “hot,” and “if” appear on the Dolch third grade sight word list.
Clearly, kindergartners who have learned to read CVC words can read these words without any trouble. Cut, got, hot and if do NOT need to be taught separately as words to memorize … and we certainly don’t need to wait until third grade to address them!
What about the kindergarten Dolch sight word list?
It contains words like “please” and “pretty.” There’s nothing wrong with waiting to teach “please” until you teach the “ea says long e” phonics pattern (likely not until first grade). And the word “pretty” is such an irregular one that you should probably wait to teach it.
Teach high frequency words according to spelling pattern whenever possible
Sight words by phonics pattern
Of my list of 240 high frequency words, well over half of them can be organized by phonics pattern.
Yep, these words are DECODABLE!
That means that the words you need to teach kids to memorize (although you don’t even have to do that, as we’ll get to in a minute), is MUCH smaller.
Here’s a quick screenshot of sight words organized by phonics level. (Scroll down to the end of this post to download the pdf for free.)
Do we have to teach the words in the above order?
No. This list is organized by my personal scope and sequence, which you can get for free here. There is no perfect scope and sequence, so you certainly don’t need to follow mine exactly.
But you DO want to make sure that your scope and sequence goes from simple to more complex.
There are also times that you’ll want to teach words earlier than they’re listed.
For example, you wouldn’t necessarily introduce SEE until you teach the “ee says long e” pattern, likely in first grade. But this simple word is easy to recognize by sight, and I recommend teaching it is a “sight word” in kindergarten or possibly even Pre-K.
The same is true for words like A, I, GO, and FOR. You don’t need to wait until you teach the corresponding phonics pattern.
But in general, it’s good practice to combine sight words with phonics instruction.
What about irregular sight words?
You can STILL incorporate phonics by recognizing that many of these surprising words are part of a set.
Teach them that way.
For example, don’t teach “any” one week and “many” several weeks later. Teach them together. Teach your students that in these words, the “a” represents the short e sound. The “y” at the end represents the long e sound.
Don’t teach “come” and “some” separately. Teach them together. Teach your students that in these words, the o-consonant-e pattern represents the short u sound.
In the free download at the end of this post, you’ll also get a list of irregular high frequency word, organized by phonics skill.
But what about irregular sight words that don’t share spelling patterns?
You can still use phonics by addressing the parts of the words that are regular and then learning the surprising parts “by heart.”
Have you seen the heart word magic videos from Really Great Reading? They do a great job showing you how to incorporate phonemic awareness and phonics so you don’t rely on whole word memorization.
Here’s a good routine to follow when teaching irregular sight words:
- Name the new word, and have your learner repeat it.
- Name the individual phonemes (sounds) in the word. For example, in the word does, there are three phonemes: /d/, /u/ and /z/.
- Spell the sounds. Call attention to any unexpected spelling. In does, we spell the short u sound with “oe” and the /z/ sound with s.
- If possible, have your learner read related words.
- Have your learner read connected text. Connected text can be decodable sentences or decodable books.
Download your FREE sight word list organized by phonics skill below!
Download your free word lists here
You’re invited to check out the rest of our sight word series …
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9
Thank you for sharing this. I would love a copy of “FREE sight word list organized by phonics skill” but am having trouble getting the page to load when I click the button. Appreciate your hard work!
Heather Groth, Customer Support
Check your email, Renae! It should be there now!
I am grateful that you have already started your transition to be more aligned to the science of reading research. I am just six months in and needing the guidance of others, like yourself, to help me on this journey of doing some unlearning and relearning.
I’m so glad you’re following along, Kristin! Do be sure to follow me on Instagram and check out my podcast. I go through a lot in both of those places as well.
Instagram (I am just starting to be active there): https://www.instagram.com/themeasuredmom/
I am looking for more teacher learning/resources to share with my team and lit. couches about the why and how of teaching sight words phonetically. Could you point me in a direction to find more research behind teaching sight words phonetically and in a scope and sequence of learning?
Great question, Sam! I would check out this article by Readsters: https://www.readsters.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/NewModelForTeachingHFWords.pdf
I don’t think they quote research in it, but you can go to their website and ask if they have resources to support this. They’ve been the ones to really spearhead this “sight words by phonics” approach.
This looks great but when I put in my details it wants a company email address. I only have my personal one at the moment which it won’t accept.
Heather Groth, Customer Support
Hi Jenni! Check your email, I have sent it your way!
UPDATE** The file just came through in my email. Sorry guess there is some kind of computer glitch.
Thank you for the words!
Heather Groth, Customer Support
I’m so glad it made it there, Jodi, thank you for letting us know!
Readthe entire blog and am not able to get free word list.