Article Sight Words

The idea behind sight words was that some English words were so weird that there was no way they could be sounded out, so they had to be learned by sight.

If we’d stuck to the idea that the truly weird words were sight words, and everything else was sounded out, we would have been OK. But we didn’t.



The trouble was that some people decided it was easier to teach all words by sight (the Whole Word method) rather than to take the time to teach:

  • the sound-to-letter combinations of the 40+ sounds in English;
  • the rules (or patterns) of English (the Phonics method);
  • the ways we spelled words that were still spelled the old-fashioned way; and
  • the ways we showed which words had come from other languages

So sounding out was taught less and less. After a couple of generations of Whole Word, so few teachers knew the sound/letter combinations and Phonics, that nearly all children HAD to learn to read by sight. And learning English words by sight is very difficult because there are so many words to learn – adults usually speak more than 20,000 different words, and often between 50,000 and 100,000 words.


Let’s have a look at the different ways a Sight Words student and a Phonics student would learn the 52 Dolch Sight Words for Kindergarten. These words are: 

all  am  are  at  ate  be  black  brown  but  came  did  do  eat  four  get  good  

have  he  into  like  must  new  no  now  on  our  out  please  pretty  ran  ride  

saw  say  she  so  soon  that  there  they  this  too  under  

want  was  well  went  what  with  white  who  will  yes



A Whole Word student learning those words by sight, would have to learn each one individually – that’s 52 things to learn.


Now, before we look at what the Phonics student would have to learn, I’d just like to clarify what I mean by Phonics. There are two different sorts of Phonics; one is ‘incidental’ Phonics – it’s not taught in an organised manner, and what’s taught is not comprehensive. Students are taught a sound for each alphabet letter, but the other 16+ sounds aren’t taught.

The other sort of Phonics is what I call full Phonics – a full Phonics course is comprehensive, and is organised so that it that equips students with all the knowledge and skills necessary to become independent readers. This information includes:

  • the 40+ sounds; 
  • the most common way each sound is represented in writing;
  • knowledge of the rules of written English;
  • basic knowledge of the history of English so students can recognise the ‘old’ ways of writing sounds (e.g. /n/ in knife and /r/ in writing);
  • basic knowledge of the history of English so students can recognise the way we write sounds in foreign words (e.g. balletEuro); and
  • sufficient practice, so they can apply their knowledge automatically.

That looks like a lot to learn. And it is, but if it’s taught in a way that makes sense, students can learn all those things in weeks.

It doesn’t take years to learn to read the full phonics way, because there is a limited amount of information to be learned and it is taught in a way that makes sense – so it’s easier to remember. 

But it does take years to learn the Whole Word way, because each word has to be taught individually. All 20,000+ of them! 

I’m writing this article so you can see just how few real Sight Words there are, and so you can see that nothing is gained by taking the Whole Word ‘shortcut’! 



In the list of words below, I’ve coloured the words so you can see at what stage full Phonics students would be able to read each one:

  • bold black words are the basic 40+ sound-to-letter words that can be sounded out;
  • bold red words are words where rules are applied (think red because rule-breaking is Dangerous – ask any police officer);
  • bold green words are words using ‘old’ fashioned letter combinations (think green for the leaves in Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest);
  • bold blue words are words using ‘foreign’ letter combinations (think blue for places over the other side of the Ocean);
  • bold pink words are words that break the rules with at least one letter (think pink because too much pink is Wrong). (I’ve underlined the rule breaking letter/s.)

all  am  are  at  ate  be  black  brown  but  came  did  do  eat  four  get  good

have  he  into  like  must  new  no  now  on  our  out  please  pretty  
ran  ride

saw  say  she  so  soon  that  there  they  this  too  under

want  was  well  went  what  with  white  who  will  yes


Of these 52 words, how many have:

Sound out spellings?  28  = 54%

Rule spellings?  8  = 15% 

Old spellings?  7  = 14%

Foreign spellings?  5  = 10%

Weird spellings?  4  = 8%

(The percentages add up to 101% because I rounded each one up.)


So if we took the time to teach students:

  • the sound/letter combinations; and
  • the rules;

they’d be able to read 69% of these words all by themselves.


If we also taught students:

  • the ways to spell sounds in old words; and
  • the ways to spell sounds in foreign words

(and there are quite a few of those types of words in use in English), then they’d be able to read well over 92% of these words.