When to Teach Sight Words, and When Not to…


Inside: This post helps parents and caregivers understand when it’s best to teach sight words. We also review which early literacy skills children should master before jumping into sight words.

Child's hands holding plastic letters and the title "When to Teach Sight Words and when not to..."

We spent a lot of time working on sight words when my own children were small.

Yes, we played games and made the experience playful. But, in hindsight, I wonder if we should’ve been emphasizing other things.

The more I learn, the more convinced I am of this.

Lately, I’ve been teacher-geeking out, reading sight word research of Linnea Ehri, Marilyn Jager Adams, and others. But don’t worry – if that’s not your cup of tea, this post will make a handy cheat sheet for you.

I had a blog reader write to me recently asking if I had any suggestions for her 4-year-old who was struggling to learn sight words. I know she’s not alone, and so this post is for her and other parents and childcare providers with similar concerns.

What Do You Mean by “Sight Words”?

So, not everyone defines “sight words” the same way. Some educators reserve that term for words that kids can’t sound out with beginning phonics skills – such as the, one, and you.

closeup of hand holding sight word flashcard for the word "one"

Others broaden the meaning to also include high frequency words – meaning words children will encounter often as they begin reading, even if they’re easy to sound out – such as it, had, and run.

For both groups of words, kids must learn to decipher them at a glance. If they can’t read them quickly and fluently, they’ll lose the thread of meaning and struggle with comprehension.

(Yes, for you and me, just about every word is a sight word… more advanced readers generally only need to figure out a word once before internalizing it.)

So when speaking casually with parents and other teachers, I take sight words to mean any of the words that beginning readers need to learn to read instantly on sight – whether or not they’re ‘sound-out-able’.

When to Teach Sight Words

Not every child is ready for sight words at the same time, and that’s okay!

Here are a few ways to gauge if a child is ready to start learning sight words.

Age

The first (and most imprecise!) suggestion is age. If a child has developmentally been on track for other milestones such as crawling, walking, and talking, then odds are they will be ready for sight words at age 5.

In fact, in many states in the US, the curriculum for sight words does not start until Kindergarten, with the only “sight word” requirement for reading and writing in Pre-K being their own name.

However, age is just one reference point to use when assessing a child’s readiness for sight words.

Luckily, we have two more precise ways to tell if a child is ready for this step in the literacy process.

Letter Knowledge

Before teaching sight words, make sure the child can identify most letters and their initial sound.

child's  hands holding plastic colorful letters

There are fancy assessment tools, but you can also check letter and letter sound knowledge on the fly. Just hold up a flashcard with a letter, and see if the child can correctly tell you the letter name and sound it makes. If they can, then they’re on their way to being ready for sight words!

However, I’m NOT saying you should drill children with flashcards. Please don’t. I’m all for working on letter knowledge in a playful, hands-on way, like this fun alphabet sensory play activity.

Then, when you think they’re ready, you can make a quick game out of testing them with flashcards.

RELATED: Phonics vs Sight Words: What Parents Should Know

Phonemic Knowledge

Believe it or not, being able to orally manipulate the sounds in words is an important foundation for teaching sight words too.

Children should be able to produce rhymes and segment  words into their individual sounds, or phonemes. For example, when you orally give them the word “ship” they should be able to break it into 3 parts: /sh/ /i/ /p/.

(There are several steps before this. If you’re interested you can read up on phonological awareness.)

Again, there are formal tools to assess phonemic knowledge, but as a parent you can do an informal evaluation.

You can work on this skill by singing fun children’s songs like “Apples and Bananas” and Willoughby Wallaby Woo:

Reading aloud picture books with rhymes is also helpful. And there are so many good ones!

Reasons NOT to Teach Sight Words Early


I had to bite my tongue recently – actually my typing fingers – when an acquaintance posted that she was working on letters and sight words with her 3-year-old.

I was pretty sure her sweet boy wasn’t really ready to learn sight words.

If she’d asked me when to teach sight words, I would’ve had some advice for her. But I didn’t want to burst her proud mama bubble.

Instead, I’m just quietly hoping that she won’t experience any of these negative consequences:

Frustration

We want our children to love reading, and so to teach them something too challenging so early on might turn them off to the idea of reading forever!

Reading should always be fun, and if you sense your child is getting frustrated, take a break and the next time you read together, select a fun book that you know your child will love!

a seated child holding his head in his hands in front of paper and pencil


False Understanding

Conversely, even if your child seems to “get it,” this may not actually be the case. If you teach sight words too early you could be wasting time or even doing damage.

Your child needs foundational alphabetic and phonemic knowledge to truly grasp sight words and how they work. Research backs this up.

A child who can memorize sight words and a child who can understand why a sight word is what it is are two different levels of readers.

Just because a child can see a word and speak it back to you correctly doesn’t necessarily mean they have a deep understanding of the mechanics of literacy.

Slower Acquisition

Children who start working on sight words too early will tend to acquire those words more slowly. This is because they don’t have the mental literacy framework yet for more rapid learning.

Think of it this way: I could memorize words in Greek, but if I didn’t understand the Cyrillic alphabet it would still be really hard for me to read similar words (of course, it would help if I knew anything about their language beyond the names of hurricanes this extra-long storm season!)

Your time will be better spent building a strong foundation of early literacy skills and nurturing a love of books.

And relax! Research shows that teaching sight words in preschool doesn’t even necessarily have an impact on achievement by the end of kindergarten.

slightly smiling little boy with an open book atop his head, with bookshelves behind him

Why You SHOULD Teach Sight Words


All of this isn’t to say that you should ignore sight words forever. You shouldn’t. They really are important to learn when a child is ready.

By learning sight words your child will be able to read faster, more fluently, and gain confidence in their literacy skills. Plus, they won’t stumble through common words that can be tricky for early readers, such as the silent “e” at the end of “like.”

Overall, sight words are a foundational must for beginner readers!

I hope this article helped you understand when the best time is to begin working on sight words. If I had known when my kids were small what I know now, I would have spent our early sight word time singing rhyming and segmenting songs together, and setting up lots of playful letter sound activities.

I hope you’re able to do the same.

Happy Teaching!

Heather

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