Decoding Sight Words

Did you know that 98% of words in the English language are actually decodable? Teaching how to decode sight words is key to literacy instruction. But somehow as teachers, we have embraced that sight words need to be memorized and tell kids they just need to remember certain words because they don’t follow the rule. Science of Reading (aka research) shows that teaching students how to decode words instead of memorizing them is a very powerful tool while reading that will lead to reading automaticity.

Keep reading for strategies and lesson ideas to help support decoding in your classroom for reading sight words. Perfect for early elementary grades including kindergarten, first-grade, and beyond!

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RESEARCH: Decoding Sight Words.

The basis of this article comes from our interpretation of two published researchers. You are encouraged to further explore their publications and books to gain a deeper understanding of teaching decoding.

Katie Pace Mills article on Rethinking Sight Words.

Denise Eide‘s book Uncovering The Logic of English:

BACKGROUND: All words are sight words

If we think about reading logically, isn’t the goal really to have all words be sight words? Think about how you read as an adult… you see a word and you automatically read it. Go ahead, try not to read the following word:


You can’t do it, can you? You can’t look at a word and automatically read it, essentially you read it by sight.

Why is this? Well as readers the ultimate goal is automaticity. We want to read all words so fast that we don’t notice we are actually decoding them.

Thus, in a sense, all words are sight words.

THE BASICS: Decoding sight words

We know sight words as teachers as words we need to remember by sight. We think that these are words that are not spelled regularly and “cannot be decoded” or words that appear with a high level of frequency in our language. Thus we teach students to memorize them.

This article will show that actually very few words fall into this category and decoding skills should be taught.

BREAKING IT DOWN: Sight Words Categories

According to the research by Katie Pace Mills on sight words: all words can be broken down into three categories; this is our take, our connections with what we know given this body of work, and our reflections on this concept.

Regularly Spelled Sight Words

These words follow a regular spelling pattern and can be decoded. Such a red can be taught /r/ /e/ /d/.

Temporarily Irregular Spelling Words

Temporarily irregular sight words are those that students have just not learned the rule yet. So, a word may be a sight word, but once the student knows how to decode them they are no longer irregular.

This is often the case with sight words. Let’s look at three examples below and learn why these words are temporary sight words:

  • has: Did you know that s makes two sounds and /z/ is the more common sound? So let’s teach students that s makes two sounds /s/ and /z/. Words like has and was make the sound /z/ not /s/. Typically words that end in s make a /z/ sound. No need to memorize anything but instead understand the phonics rules to apply to huge variety of words.
  • have: Did you know that English words do not end if v? So let’s go from SPEECH TO PRINT, say the word, and write the sounds. /h/ /a/ /v/, but English words do not end in v so we put an e as a placeholder. This is only one of the 9 rules for silent e, but for some reason, we just focus on CVCe words.
  • two: Did you know that words sometimes have word parts just for meaning? Think about the words twenty, twice, twelve, twins, etc. The TW is there to represent the meaning of two. Read more about two here!

On a side note, this is not just true for traditional sight words. Technically chat would be a temporary sight word until we learn the sound /ch/. Again, explicit instruction on the sound /ch/ will help students to decode that word thus moving it from temporary to decodable for them. Learn more about digraphs here.

The key here is explicit instruction and really digging into the words is key here. We need to be word investigators and Teaching phonics and decoding is the best way for students to make the brain connections they need to move towards fluent or automatic reading. Memorization and flashcards do not do this.

Permanently Irregularly Spelled Words

These words violent all the rules but have lots of anchors to provide support. An example is island. This word has a silent letter that must be taught is silent, it has no rule that explains it! If 98% of words are decodable, that means that only 2% of words are really irregular and need to be remembered by sight. WOW! 😯 🤯

KEY TAKEAWAYS: If you read anything, read this

  • 98% of all words are decodable (p. 15, Uncovering the Logic of English)
  • Teaching phonics rules moves words from temporarily irregular to regular!
  • If we become word investigators, we can decode most sight words.
  • We should use language with our students that supports learning more phonics skills (not phrases like “we just need to learn that by sight” because there’s a good chance that word can be decoded down the line.
  • Teaching decoding will support all readers in a majority of words including sight words.

USE IT: Classroom Activities

Teach students to orthographically map words by sounds and focus on understanding the phonics patterns in groups of words!

How do you do that? Get the Sight Words By Phonics Bundle which includes phonics posters, words organized by pattern, printable activities, and much more!

Continue practicing over 230+ sight words with word mapping activities, decodable readers, and a huge variety of activities in the Endless Sight Words Book Bundle

Teach sounds through the use of a sound wall and sound spelling cards. Check out the Phonics and Phonemes bundle here that uses real kindergarten mouth photos to support instruction. Students need to have a strong foundation in sounds to best use decoding skills.

Other activities such as word sorts, word scrambles, word ladders, etc that focus on the manipulation of letters, sounds, and explicit practice of building words are best!

Check out all of the Simply Kinder Science of Reading articles here!

At Simply Kinder we work together to bring you ready-to-use resources to partner with great teaching for any curriculum, a Facebook community where teachers talk all things Kindergarten, and low-prep learning ideas that your students will love. Be sure to stay up to date with all things kindergarten on InstagramFacebookPinterest, and through email. Simply Kinder: where teaching Kinder is definitely better together!

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