How to teach sight words

You can teach your child sight words through many methods.  Buying or making cards with pictures on them can help make the words stick better in the child’s mind.  You can have your child learn a word a day by pointing to the word and having the child say it aloud.  Repeating helps the words stick.  Many kindergarten classrooms have word walls where the sight words are posted so children can use them when writing.


You can find such words with magnetic backings (or you can make them).  Put them on your refrigerator, or in a large metallic baking pan or cookie sheet.  Then help your child move the words around to make phrases or sentences.

Games are another good way to teach sight words.

  • Make a BINGO sheet with sight words for your child to find and cover.
  • Play Concentration. Make a set of cards with two of each sight word.  Start with just a few pairs, mix them up and turn them over on a table, and then turn them, two at a time, to see who can find the most matching pairs.
  • Play Go Fish with the same set of matching cards.

Some word pairs can easily be confused, so spend extra time on them:  of and off; for and from; was and saw; on and no; their and there; them and then; and when, where, what and with.

One caution:  Children who learn sight words before they learn phonics may try to memorize all words rather than sounding them out.  They may balk at learning phonics.  They need to know it is important to be able to sound out words using certain rules so when they encounter new words they can figure them out.

Should I teach my child sight words?

Yes!  Sight words (sometimes called high frequency words) are words which a reader can identify by their appearance, even if the reader doesn’t know phonics.  They are often little words like “a” and “and.”  Some of them follow the rules of phonics, but some don’t.

Reading tutor with 4-year-old

Why is knowing them important?  According to Dr. Edward B. Fry who did extensive research on English words,

  • 25 sight words make up about one-third of all words published.
  • 100 words comprise approximately one-half of all of the words found in publications.
  • 300 words make up approximately 65% of all written material.

In the 1940s, Dr. Edward W. Dolch published a list of about 300 words commonly used in children’s books published in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  These became the first list of sight words.

In the 1990’s, Dr. Fry did further research and provided a list of 1,000 words which he called “instant” words.

By knowing these words, a child can read about 75% of almost any book written for children.  For example, knowing the Dolch words, a child can read almost

  • 88% of Ten Apples Up On Top by Dr. Seuss
  • 87% – Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
  • 78% – Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman
  • 78% – Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman
  • 82% – I Want to Be Somebody New! by Robert Lopshire
  • 83% – A Fly Went By! by Mike McClintock
  • 78% – The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
  • 81% – The Cat in the Hat Comes Back by Dr. Seuss
  • 75% – One fish two fish red fish blue fish by Dr. Seuss

Lists of these words are available free on many websites.  Search for either “Dolch words” or “Fry words.”  You can buy cards printed with these words on them.

In our next blog, we’ll talk about ways to teach sight words.

Printing, cursive writing and keystroking

Is there a best sequence in which to learn printing, cursive writing and key stroking?  Yes, according to research.

clip of child holding pencil upside down

  • First children should learn to print letters, using either a pen or pencil, from toddler years through second grade.
  • Then, during third and fourth grade, children should learn and switch to cursive handwriting.
  • Beginning in fifth grade, children should learn to keystroke.

This sequence is connected to how the brain of a child develops.

Holding a pencil, forming letters correctly, printing neatly on a horizontal line and using correct spacing to form words is a complex skill requiring coordination of many processes.  By four or five years old, most children are capable of this.

Around fourth grade, using cursive writing seems to help children with spelling and composing.  The reason is not clear, but researchers speculate that joining letters together in cursive writing helps children to form words from individual letters.

When a child learns to type properly on a keyboard, the fingers from both hands are used, unlike when handwriting.  Using both hands might activate connective tissue in the brain which joins different parts of the brain together to perform a task.

(Common Core Standards recommend that children learn to print in first and second grades, but learning to write in cursive is not recommended.  As a result, cursive writing is no longer taught in many schools.  The Common Core Standards recommend learning to use a keyboard.)

How to retain new vocabulary

Review, review and more review is the way to help children retain new vocabulary.

"I know that word, Mom," says the child lookin

Too often the push by teachers is to teach more words rather than to solidify the words students already “learned.”  The result is that the words practiced weeks ago don’t stick in students’ minds.

What can you do to make words stick?

Suppose one week you teach ten or twelve new words to a student.  That week you review the words daily—perhaps asking the student to draw each word’s meaning one day, or to have a spelling bee kind of review another day, or to write the words in sentences another day.

The next week you teach ten or twelve new words.  You use the same kind of daily review, but you include a few words from the previous week’s list which have caused the most problems.

For the third week of vocabulary instruction, instead of introducing new words, intensively review the combined words of the previous two weeks.  Perhaps you could offer fill-in-the-blank worksheets with a bank of vocabulary words at the top of the sheet.  Or during a writing lesson, suggest composing a paragraph using ten of the words from both lists.  Offer a prize (a bell rung in a student’s honor or a sticker) if the student can find one of the new vocabulary words in the ordinary course of the day’s work.

During the fourth week, introduce another set of new words, using various strategies.  Repeat some of the words from the previous weeks during the daily review.

During the fifth week, do not introduce new words; instead focus on words from the first three weeks which are difficult to remember and which are likely to be used or encountered by the student.  Focus on useful words.

Learn new, review.  Learn new, sweeping review.  Continue this pattern, spending as much time on learning new words as reviewing old ones, and your student will remember vocabulary words.

Why are upper case letters and lower case letters called upper case and lower case?

Upper case letters mean capital letters, sometimes called majuscules.  Upper case letters all have the same height.



Lower case letters mean small letters, sometimes called minuscules (from which comes the word “minus”).  The height of lower case letters varies.  Some are half as high as upper case letters, such as a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x and z.  Some have ascenders (parts which stick up) such as b, d, f, h, k, l and t.  Some have descenders (parts which hang down) such as g, j, p, q and y.

Years ago, when type was set by hand instead of by machine, a typesetter would take individual metal letters from a drawer or letter case.  Capital letters were stored in one case and small letters were stored in another case along with punctuation  and spacing markers.  Capital letters were stored above small letters, leading capital letters to be called upper case letters and small letters to be called lower case letters.

Sometimes both capital and small letters were stored in a single case which could be set upright.  When the case was organized, the capital letters were placed at the back of the case so that when it was set upright, capitals would be on top—hence, upper case.

The metal letters typesetters would see in the cases were reflections of the letters printed on the page.  That means the metal letters faced the opposite direction from the printed letters.  In a case, a “b” would look like a “d.” Words and sentences would be set in a way which to us looks backwards, but the printed version would appear as we see type today.

Capital letters go farther back in history than smaller letters which were introduced in about the ninth century.  Smaller letters began as rounded, smaller versions of capitals.  They were easier for scribes to write at a time when all writing was done by hand.

Today most English writing is done in lower case letters with capitals reserved for the beginnings of sentences and for proper nouns.  Even so, capitals are often taught first to young children, perhaps because they are easier to distinguish.  Capital B and capital D are easier to figure out than “b” and “d.”

ESL, ESOL, ELL—Do they mean the same thing?

Yes, they mean approximately the same:  someone whose primary language is not English is now learning English.


ESL stands for English as a Second Language.

ESOL stands for English to Speakers of Other Languages.

ELL stands for English Language Learners.

EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language.

ESP stands for English for Special Purposes.

TESL stands for Teaching English as a Second Language.

More and more I am seeing ELL as the current politically correct term in the US.  Just a few years ago it was ESL. But I hear that in the UK and Ireland, ESOL is the preferred term.

How to test for kindergarten readiness

Checking that a child can touch his ear with the opposite hand is one test for kindergarten readiness.  But if you are looking for specific proof that your child is ready, here are some of the abilities which Kentucky looks for in each child:

young child attempting to touch his ear with opposite hand

  • Stating his or her name, age, birthday and phone number
  • Naming body parts as they are pointed to
  • Standing on one leg with eyes open and then closed
  • Identifying shapes such as triangles and squares
  • Printing his or her name
  • Saying (not singing) the ABC’s
  • Naming letters pointed to
  • Counting into the twenties
  • Sorting items by shape
  • Separating a certain number of blocks from a group of blocks
  • Identifying the front and back of a book
  • Identifying in what order words are read

The test used by Kentucky looks at five broad areas:  academic / cognitive; language development; physical development; self-help; and social-emotional.

Not all states test incoming kindergarteners, yet all are looking for  kindergarten-ready skills in children.  You can use this information to prepare your child for a great start to school.