Three Ways to Help Students Who Struggle With Sight Words

Learn three ways to help students who struggle with sight word recognition and identification within the primary classroom. Learn how to introduce sight words, play with sight words, and practice sight words within the context of a story.

If you are a primary teacher, you can probably think of a student in your classroom who struggles with sight word identification. In fact, most teachers can think of several students whose sight word recognition skills have taken a toll on his or her overall reading success. Since sight words make up 50%-75% of all text, we know that being able to recognize and read sight words quickly and effortlessly is a critical skill for life-long readers. Sight word recognition improves both fluency and comprehension. When sight words can be read automatically, students can spend more time on decodable text and phonetic patterns, therefore increasing fluency skills.  In addition, the child also frees up time and energy to focus on the text’s meaning, resulting in increased comprehension and prosodic reading (intonation, phrasing, and expression).  Clearly, we know sight words are a core part of our literacy instruction as teachers. Since I have gotten to know you, my readers, pretty well over the past six years, I can even confidently assume we are all teaching sight words on a daily basis within our classrooms. So why do we still have students who stare at us blankly when they come to a sight word that we know they know while reading a book?

In this blog post, I’m going to share the importance of teaching sight words within context, and why it can sometimes be the difference between a student who masters his sight words, and one who does not. Now, before I go on, it’s important to note that there can be many, many, many reasons why certain students struggle with sight words more than others. This post focuses on one of those possible reasons (a very important reason, in my opinion). We’ll chat about what we currently do, why it may not be working, and solutions to move students forward. We will learn how to introduce sight words, how to play with sight words, and how to practice sight words. Let’s get started!

Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors

Have you heard this quote before? We can apply it to students who struggle with sight words just as much as we can apply it to our daily lives. Let’s start off by discussing one of the biggest mistakes I see teachers make while introducing and teaching sight words within the primary classroom. (I can make that bold statement, because in the past, I have made this same mistake, too.) Let me paint a picture for you of a very typical Monday in a primary classroom. It’s time for the day’s reading lesson, and more specifically, it’s “time to teach sight words.” The teacher pulls out his or her pile of flashcards and gets ready to explicitly teach this week’s three to five words that the students will focus on. She flashes each word card to the class, reads the word, and uses it in a sentence. The students may read the word and echo it back to her several times. The teacher (and possibly the students) may even write it down several times. Over the course of that week, the students will gather at the small group table, and the teacher will continue to flash the same word cards over and over again to the students. Every day, the hope is that the students can read the words faster than the day before. On Tuesday, maybe the students can only recognize two of the five words. On Thursday, they are reading all five words quickly! Sight Word Success! …right?

Flash forward a week later. Those same students are reading a book at the guided reading table. On page three, one of the words the teacher just went over is written as plain as day on the page. The student skips the word as she whisper reads at the table. “You know that word. We just went over it,” the teacher says. “We even wrote the word in shaving cream. We rainbow wrote the word. We wrote it with our magic fingers in the sky. We did yoga while we chanted it. We sculpted the word from play-dough. We built the word with magnetic letters. We wrote the word with my fancy markers. I know you know that word.”

Sound familiar?

We Grow From Mistakes Not From Success

What went wrong in my little scenario above? I believe there was a very important piece of the puzzle missing from instruction when those five sight words were introduced. Context. When we fail to teach sight words within the context of real text, we fail to show students the purpose and the importance of the very words we want them to master so badly. It’s not enough for us to just say the word and use it in a sentence, we need our students to read the word within a sentence. We know sight word recognition requires consistent, repetitive practice of the word over and over again. But in the same way that we wouldn’t expect our students to master a list of vocabulary words on the topic of landforms, without first showing them what the words mean and how they are used, we shouldn’t be doing this with sight words either.  For some reason, over the years, we have convinced ourselves that because sight words cannot be phonetically sounded out, they should only be taught in an isolated manner. Hear me out. I am not suggesting that isolated activities such as flashcards, magnetic letters, and other fun word work activities are not helpful for sight word recognition. I have and use MANY isolated sight word activities in my classroom. These kind of activities are valuable for sight word memory and quick recognition. I am saying that these activities and instructional strategies need to first be introduced and taught in context. Remember, practicing a word is different than initially learning a word. While our end goal is for sight words to be recognized quickly – and by sight – we need to first show students the important job they hold within the English language when we are introducing and teaching the words to them. Without sight words, our speech sounds jumbled. Without sight words, text makes little sense. Sight words have an important purpose, and we need to be sure we are sharing that purpose with students when we introduce and teach sight words to our readers. This happens by showing the words embedded within the context of real text, as often as possible.

When We Reflect, We Become Wiser

In our fast-paced world of teaching, it’s easy for us to repeat the same instructional routines over and over again. When some of our students aren’t making growth or gains in their sight word recognition, we tend to do one of two things. We panic, or we get proactive. Often, it’s just time for us to step back and try something new. Now, please understand that I am not saying that following my advice or activities will suddenly create sight word experts among every one of your students. Instead, I am saying that if something isn’t working, let’s try something different! Our new approach may not work…but it might! We will only know if we try. In the following three activities, we will learn how to introduce words within context, how to play with words within context, and how to practice reading sight words within context. As a result, our students receive instruction and practice in both recognition and comprehension at the same time, rather than in isolation. Let’s take a look!

Use Your Flashcards WITHIN The Context of a Sentence

Learn three ways to help students who struggle with sight word recognition and identification within the primary classroom. Learn how to introduce sight words, play with sight words, and practice sight words within the context of a story.

The following strategy is ideal for introducing your students to each week’s focus sight words. It can also be repeated on a daily basis as a whole class activity, or within a small reading group.  Begin by writing a sentence for each of your focus sight words for the week. The sentences can work together as a story, or each sentence can stand alone. Place your flashcards on the bottom of your pocket chart. (You can find the one I use by clicking on this Amazon Affiliate link here: pocket chart easel.) Before you even read the sight words, read the sentences to the students (You can say “blank” for the missing word). Then, ask students to think of the sight words they already know. What words could fit into this sentence and make sense? By asking this question, we are activating prior knowledge and trying to recall and apply sight words they have already mastered, rather than just reading a list of words and moving on with the lesson.

Learn three ways to help students who struggle with sight word recognition and identification within the primary classroom. Learn how to introduce sight words, play with sight words, and practice sight words within the context of a story.

Next, read the focus sight words to the students. You can even have them read the words back to you. There’s nothing wrong with this exercise – the important thing is that we are reading words AND linking meaning. Now, read the first sentence again. Ask the students, “Which of the four (or three or six) sight words makes sense in the sentence?” Invite students to share and then discuss why each sight word works and makes sense within each sentence. As they come to an agreement, have a child help you place the correct word card into the pocket chart, as shown in the picture above.  This is your typical cloze activity. There is nothing new or special about this activity, except that it is just as powerful of a strategy to use when introducing sight words as it is for vocabulary words. Introducing words within the context of a sentence or short story is a much more powerful way to show students new sight words than simply introducing them on flashcards. Students need to first understand how sight words help clarify, share, and facilitate information. Then, the flashcards can be used for review and practice! “Intention before identification” can be the motto of this introduction activity. The pocket chart activity can be repeated throughout the week using review words, new sentences, or just by repeating the same activity for exposure and repeated practice.

Let’s Learn a Game: What Makes Sense?

Learn three ways to help students who struggle with sight word recognition and identification within the primary classroom. Learn how to introduce sight words, play with sight words, and practice sight words within the context of a story.

Now that we have introduced our sight words within real text, let’s a play a game at the small group table. You may have seen the sight word or phonics game that uses Jenga pieces. We’re going to put a twist on simply pulling a block out and reading a word. That is great for recall and recognition practice (and again, students NEED exposure to sight words in that way), but let’s challenge them by throwing some comprehension into the mix! To start, you’ll need blank wooden blocks or a Jenga game. (You can find the colorful wooden blocks I use in this Amazon Affiliate link here: blank wooden blocks. Or, you can use a regular Jenga game.)  Write a sight word on each block. Stack the blocks up, just as if you were playing Jenga.  You will also need to write random sentences onto sentence strips. (The sentences can work as a short story again, or they can be stand alone sentences.) Leave blanks for the spots where a sight word would go. Post the sentences on the board, so that the students playing the game can all see them. You may want to read the sentences together before starting the game. Students take turns pulling a block without the tower falling, but there’s a catch! Whenever a child notices that a word he or she has pulled out fits into the context of one of the posted sentences, the child gets to keep that sentence strip. (If you write the sentences on the board with a marker instead of a sentence strip, just give the child a cube or a counter to keep points with.) The children continue playing until the tower falls over. The child who collected the most sentence strips, wins the game!

Why This Sight Word Game Works

In the game above, the students not only have to recognize and recall the words by sight, but they have to apply the words into the context of a sentence. The students have to be able to read the words and have an understanding of how the sight words work and fit into the English language. Be prepared to go slowly when you are initially working on this game with your students. It is a challenging game for little ones because it requires them to multi-task and integrate sight word fluency with comprehension. Most importantly, have fun!

Sight Word Practice with a Purpose

Learn three ways to help students who struggle with sight word recognition and identification within the primary classroom. Learn how to introduce sight words, play with sight words, and practice sight words within the context of a story.

We have discussed how to introduce and play with our sight words within the context of text. Now, it’s time to practice reading the words through repeated readings. If we want our students to develop sight word memory, they need to be exposed to the words over and over again. They also need to be reading sight words in authentic, meaningful ways.  This occurs when students are devouring books! When our students read at home, they are being exposed to sight words. When they read at school, they are practicing sight words. Our students are practicing sight word recognition when they are reading lists and labels at the grocery store.  But what about the students who need a little bit more?

Sight Word Fluency Intervention

In 2012, I felt helpless. I had a handful of students at my small group table who continued to read sight words quickly on a flashcard, but they still struggled to read them within the context of a story. I knew I needed to do something different. I wanted a resource that focused on sight words and used both repetition and meaning to push their sight word fluency along. That same year, I developed my Sight Word Fluency Passages for Reading Intervention.  Each reading passage focuses on four sight words and includes coordinating flashcards for each “lesson,” or story. You can use the flashcards to introduce the sight words in the way we have already discussed. Then, the students can apply those words through repeated reading within a story. In this way, students can work on both sight recognition AND application. As we’ve been discussing throughout this blog post, when our independent “read by sight” activities are combined with an understanding of how the words fit into the English language, our instruction becomes much more powerful!

Learn three ways to help students who struggle with sight word recognition and identification within the primary classroom. Learn how to introduce sight words, play with sight words, and practice sight words within the context of a story.

In these passages, students identify all of the words within the passage by first color coding them. Then, the child reads the passage three times for fluency. The multiple exposure students receive as they color the sight words within the passage gives struggling students a boost of confidence. They can better apply and practice the words within the context of the story, because they have already identified and located the words. They also love keeping track of how many times they have read the story! To end the intervention lesson, the students illustrate the passage in order to demonstrate comprehension skills. As my students continued to work through these sight word passages, I continued to see their reading confidence soar. The short, manageable passages allowed them to practice their sight word recognition skills in a fluent, meaningful way. I use the passages for our Response to Intervention time. They are also a wonderful resource to send home with families, because the directions are simple and clear.

Learn three ways to help students who struggle with sight word recognition and identification within the primary classroom. Learn how to introduce sight words, play with sight words, and practice sight words within the context of a story.

Try It Out For Free

Would you like to try out some Sight Word Fluency Passages for Reading Intervention for FREE? I have TWO editions of my Sight Word Fluency Passages in my store. The first edition contains 55 passages and covers the Dolch Sight Words. The second edition, titled MORE Sight Word Fluency Passages, contains 75 completely different passages and covers the first 300 Fry Words. For BOTH editions, I have included FREE passages to try out and use with your students in the Preview Downloads. You can download the preview file for free and print the sample passage out to see if this reading activity is a good fit for your students.  Simply click on one of the packs below to learn more and find the preview download:

Sight Word Fluency Passages for Reading Intervention by Miss DeCarbo

Sight Word Fluency Passages Edition 2 reading intervention by Miss DeCarbo

I hope this blog post was helpful, and provided ideas on how to introduce sight words, play with sight words, and practice sight words. If you wish to save this post to Pinterest for future reference (or to share with friends), please feel free to use the image below for your Pinterest boards:

Learn three ways to help students who struggle with sight word recognition and identification within the primary classroom. Learn how to introduce sight words, play with sight words, and practice sight words within the context of a story.

If you are looking for additional ideas, tips, and resources for sight word instruction, you may be interested in the following additional blog posts. You can click on the images below to read more. As always, Happy Reading!

assessing and differentiating sight word recognition in the primary classroom

Small Group Warm Ups for the small group table

The Amazon affiliate links that I disclosed above help me keep my tiny corner of the internet up and running, so that I can continue to share lessons, teaching ideas, and resources with you! Amazon throws a few cents my way if you happen to purchase something from those links – at no extra cost to you. 

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  1. Thank you for this insightful approach .. it is the missing link for my teaching sight words and thanks for all your efforts to produce and share your free resources.

  2. I am having trouble downloading the trial Freebie for the Sight Word Fluency passages with the first edition.

    1. Hello! 🙂 You will need an account on TPT. The freebie passages are in the free Preview Download for that product. The link to the product is in the blog post above. 🙂

  3. I’m a little confused. I like your idea, but how do the children manage to read the text when they are still learning to read basic sight words? Woman, library and place?

    1. Since we can’t front load every word for our students, it’s important that in addition to decoding, they learn how to use context clues and read words within context. We use all of our reading strategy prompts for unknown words to help students be independent, life-long readers. As in lots of books they will read at the small group table, there will always be unknown words to students. These passages aren’t designed to be 100% decidable, they’re meant to embed the sight words they are working on into context. I hope this helps. 🙂

  4. Excellent approach!! Really impressive..
    What would be the age to introduce sight words? Mine is 3 Yr girl. She is not able to read the text. So should I use your method?

    1. I think 3 might be a little young unless she knows all of her letters and sounds. I started early for my son at 3.5 years old but he was able to look at a letter at the time and just tell me the sound. Once he could do that, I felt comfortable starting with words like at, and, if, it, etc. 🙂 Those were high frequency words he could “sound out” if needed.

  5. I teach French and as a language teacher, I know that teaching anything out of context is a no no. Thanks so much for sharing your work! My daughter’s school uses the Fundations program, which I find very dry and unappealing. My daughter is struggling. I have to complement each unit with my homemade hands-on activities. It takes a tremendous amount of time. Would you say the material you created follow the Fundations units for 1st grade? Or does it work for a different program? Thanks again for your refreshing ideas!

    1. Hello! The Fundations words are pretty basic in that these words in my resources will overlap with the Fundations words. The order will not be the same though. I hope this helps! 🙂

  6. Hi! I am a homeschooling mom living in México. My 6 yr old is still struggling with sight words and reading in general. I loved your ‘ Sight word fluency passages for reading intervention’. If I buy the PDF, is it sent to my email or??
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Katie! It will be available in your TpT My Purchases page if you purchase it from my TpT store. If you purchase it on my website it will be emailed to you. 🙂

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