Instant or Sight Words - What They Are and How to Teach Them

Instant or Sight words are the words a reader must recognize immediately. These words are the most commonly used words in the English language and interestingly, many of them are difficult to teach by phonics and are not easily represented by pictures. The most common sight word lists are Dolch Sight Words and Fry Instant Words. Teaching sight words is not the same as the Whole Language approach to teaching reading. The Whole Language approach assumes repeated exposure through listening will provide an eventual connection in a person's brain concerning the letters encoding the spoken word. Teaching sight words is a more intensive approach which concentrates on a small set of words which form the core of written English.

The Dolch Sight Words list was developed by Dr. Edward William Dolch in 1948 and published in his book "Problems in Reading." The list contains the 220 most frequently used words in the English language and includes conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives and verbs. These sight words make up 50 to 70 percent of any general text. He referred to these words as "tool" or "service" words because they are used in all writing regardless of subject matter. Dolch intentionally excluded nouns from his sight word list. Most nouns are not universal but rather linked to a particular activity or subject matter. He stated, "If new subject matter is used, new nouns must be used." There is a separate list of 95 Dolch nouns.

The Dolch sight words were designed to be learned and mastered by the third grade and are arranged by level of increasing difficulty: Preprimer, Primer, First Grade, Second Grade, and Third Grade.

The Fry 1000 Instant Words or Fry Instant Words is a more extensive list of the most common words used when teaching reading, writing, and spelling. The words, published in 1996 by Dr. Edward B. Fry, are organized by level and are intended to be taught through the fifth grade. The words are ranked in order of frequency.

Although the English Language contains close to one million words, Dr. Fry found an interesting phenomenon, which is:

  • 25 words make up approximately 1/3 of all items published.
  • 100 words comprise approximately 1/2 of all of the words found in publications.
  • 300 words make up approximately 65% of all written material.

It is easy to see why these words are important to developing reading fluency and comprehension.

Teach sight words using flash cards, word recognition bingo, spelling lessons, easy reading practice, Word Walls, and Sight Word Games. Schedule time to practice these words each day.

Flash cards. You can download free flashcards of sight/instant words or find the lists by using the search terms "Fry Instant Words" or "Dolch Sight Words". Or create more student involvement by having your students create their own flash cards by copying the words from the blackboard. Flash the cards to your students and then have them practice in pairs and by themselves. Remember to shuffle the cards so the order can not be memorized. You can also show a flashcard and have the students write the word on a piece of paper and then use the word in a short sentence.

Word Recognition Match. Give your students a page on which you have numbered 20 lines and have written five instant words on each line. Call out a sight word from each line and have your students circle it. Reward students according to the number of matches they identify. This approach can also be used as a recognition test. Use the results to group students by ability. If you wish, the worksheets may be used as study aids.

Spelling Lessons. Include sight words in spelling lessons. In addition to classroom instruction, hand out homework sheets which include these words. The worksheets should include alphabetizing, copying, and using the words in a sentence. You might also include a section in which you vary the task. For example, have your students identify the words which end with "-at".

Easy Reading Practice. Easy reading is defined as reading the student can do with no more than one error in 20 words. Easy reading practice is helpful because it lets the student work through materials smoothly with speed. Sight words are present in these selections and the student gets to practice these words in the context of the successful practice session, which in turn boosts the student's confidence.

Create a Word Wall. Get ten 4- by 6-inch cards. Write one sight word on each card using a black marker. Have your students participate in the process. Read the word and have your students repeat it. Have a student display the card on a wall. Have that student read the word again. Go on to the next word, repeat the previous steps and have another student post this word and so on. Each week add ten sight words to the wall.

Change the order of the posted words frequently. Working with 5 or 6 students at a time, have a student read the words in the top line from left to right. Then ask the next student to read the top line from right to left. Work through the list. You can also have the words read as columns instead of rows.

Alternatively, use a pointer to randomly select a sight word and have a student read the word.

Sight Word Games. There are a number of games that make learning sight words fun. Bingo, Pairs, and I Spy with My Little Eye… are some examples.

For Bingo, place 25 words (five rows, five columns) randomly on cards. Hand out a card to each student. Place the words on slips of paper in a bowl. Teacher pulls a slip from the bowl and reads off the word. Students place small markers of cardboard over the words which are called. The first student to complete a row, column, or diagonal wins.

Pairs is a card game for two to five players. First make a deck of fifty cards containing 25 pairs of identical cards. Deal each player five cards. The first player asks another player if he has a specific card to match one he holds in his hand. If the other player has the card, he gives it to the asking player who then puts down this matching pair. If the other player does not have the requested card, then the asking player draws a card from the deck. The object is to get as many pairs as possible. If the asking player does not know how to read the card, he may show it to the other player or the teacher may read it. The player being asked may request to see the card, so he can compare it with the cards in his hand. Play ends when one player has used all the cards in his hand.

I Spy with My Little Eye…Initially; the teacher will be the leader in this game. Pick out some attribute of the words on the Word Wall or a list of sight words provided to the students and say the phrase "I spy with my little eye something that… and then name the attribute (begins with the letter "w", ends with "ing", or has the letter "e", for example). After your students get the hang of it, assign a student to start the game, and then each winner does the next round. Or have the leader position rotate through the students clockwise so each student has the opportunity to practice naming the attribute and repeating the phrase.

Sight or instant words are crucial to reading fluency and comprehension. It is important to give students lots of opportunities to practice these words until the words are second nature. The techniques outlined in this article work well and will help your students succeed.

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