Sight Words: What, When, and How

What are Sight Words?

Whether you call them sight words, popcorn words or high frequency words, they are, by definition, “commonly used words that young children are encouraged to memorize as a whole or by ‘sight,’ so that they can automatically recognize these words in print without having to use any strategies to decode.” [1]

The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists claims that the first 25 most frequent words make up about one-third of all printed material in English, and that the first 100 make up about one-half of all written material.  Let that thought sink in.  50%!  The obvious advantage of learning sight words is that it can have a powerful impact on student’s reading fluency.

‘Sight Word’ is a bit of a misnomer because it implies that a word is learned simply by seeing it in its complete form.  For this reason, flashcards are the most common way teachers will try to ‘drill’ the recognition of given words simply by repetition.  If students are developmentally not ready in their spoken or orthographic skills, no matter how hard you may try, the words will not stick in their brains.

One problem with sight words is that many, though not all, lack dependable letter–sound correspondences (of = /uv/ and is = /iz/).  Most words are more regular than not, especially in the consonant features. For example, the high-frequency word said is 50 percent regular; what would otherwise be a dependable ai digraph is irregular compared to the pronunciation of words like tail or paint.  Nonetheless, it’s important teachers address these irregularities with students rather than avoiding them or assuming that students will eventually ‘pick up’ the differences.

In addition, high frequency words can be abstract, difficult if not impossible to represent using pictures, and especially difficult to understand where meaning may have an inferred understanding through context (something a second language learner doesn’t have the advantage of in early language development.)  It can be very elusive to create a clear mental model of words like have and get, both of which can cross several different word choices in a language learner’s native language. Just as complicated is a word like was which refers to a past existential state of being.  I remember trying to explain to students that “I win a prize” infers that if I win a game, I will get a prize, whereas, in Japanese, it is akin to saying “I prized a game.”

This is why students of English need to be exposed to the patterns of speech and inferred meaning of sight words early on in oral exercises, chants, and songs.  Inevitably, as you move children from decoding individual words to decoding language in connected text, sight words should be a regular part of your ESL program.

Two popular sight word lists you might want to check out are Dolch’s Sight Words (by frequency) and Fry’s Sight Words (by grade level).  Both of these lists are offered for free on

When to Teach Sight Words

Easy Sight Words Kinney Brothers Publishing

If you are teaching ESL students with the eventual goal of reading (and you should be), you need to begin thinking about sight words long before students encounter them in writing exercises. Building a vocabulary base that includes high frequency words that is not exclusive to nouns and verbs, contributes to a sense of word and meaning in context.  Vocal chants and early Q&A exercises should include sight words in anticipation that these words will be encountered again in written text.  Reading story books in class is also important for showing children how you read in English and, where possible, should include picture prompts and word cues so children can participate in the reading of the story.

Before teaching children sight words orthographically, it is necessary that children have a solid foundation of the ABCs, phonemes and understand concepts of word.  From there, learning sentence structure and decoding meaning in context should be taught in that order.

In other words, you can’t teach kids the concept of word without first teaching the ABCs.  Trying to use flash cards to teach sight words, like visual designs, out of context and with no relationship to connected meaning, will NOT make the words stick nor will they transfer to automatic written understanding.  Likewise, expecting a child to write and rewrite a sentence when they can’t yet decode the individual words is not going to eventually impart meaning.

When students understand the ABCs and their associated sounds, can combine those sounds into a concept of word, and are capable of understanding sentence constructs, THAT is the time to begin teaching and exercising sight words.  The good news is that many children learn these concepts in their own language at a very young age and have the ability to transfer that understanding to a new language and a new set of rules.

How to Teach Sight Words

There are many ways to strengthen your students’ knowledge and recognition of sight words in text and out of text.

How do you begin to teach sight words?  Again, start early by reading to your classes, and importantly, showing kids how you are reading.  By simply pointing to each word as you read, you’re teaching them much more than just the words associated to colorful illustrations.  You’re also teaching them about print concepts, moving from left to right, top to bottom, and the return sweep.  All of these concepts can operate very differently in a child’s native written language.

Anticipating future exercises by building a targeted vocabulary and sentence pattern base is helpful when it comes time to introduce students to orthographic exercises.  You will rely on that knowledge base to help them transition to written text and a speech-to-print match.

Keep in mind that eventually you’re going to be taking students beyond decoding words and into the realm of decoding sentences. The reading goals you set for your students should begin long before they start reading and writing.

If you have been teaching phonics and simple CVC words and your kids are ready to start using those words in easy sentences, you’re ready to begin teaching easy sight words.  Along with your regular phonics exercises, start throwing sight words into the mix!  If you want more ideas for working with flash cards, check out my 41 Flash Card Activities post or download the pdf from the Kinney Brothers Publishing Web site.

Writing Phrases and Patterning Mentor Texts

Children can write phrases that include high frequency words that build off patterned mentor (sample) texts.  With ESL students, offering prompts and spelling can help children build sentences and understand the importance of the sight words in their placement amongst already learned words from their phonics lessons.


Using flash cards, line up a sentence and have students read the sentence until they are familiar with the order and meaning.  Then cover up the sight words or pull them out and have students replace or match the words of the original sentence.  This same activity works well as a worksheet with cutting and pasting to replace the missing words.

Easy Sight Words Kinney Brothers Publishing

Matching is also an excellent way to reinforce learned words in out-of-text activities.   The pages below, including Bingo, when reduced to their most basic skill, are simply matching activities.  But, don’t tell the kids this! They think they’re playing a game or doing a puzzle!  When you combine sight word matching with writing, coloring, counting, spinners, dice, random choice, and memory skills, you have activities that will engage and entertain students on a variety of levels.

Easy Sight Words Kinney Brothers Publishing


In this example of an in-text exercise, students use a marker to highlight sight words.  Like the sample at the beginning of this post, you can hand out highlighters, choose any random text, and have students highlight the words being learned.  This is also a great cool down exercise for the whole class or activity for early finishers!

Easy Sight Words Kinney Brothers Publishing

Pick Up

Pick Up is a super simple activity that keeps students engaged.  Ask students to pick up all the words that begin with a particular consonant, vowel, or capital letter. Or have students listen to a spoken sentence and line up the words in order.  Sentence Fishing is simply a pick-up type game and kids can’t get enough of it!  Remember, when errors are made, it’s a rich opportunity to lead children to helpful conversations so they can articulate why a word doesn’t fit.

Sentence Fishing Kinney Brothers Publishing


Another out-of-text activity for developing sight words is sorting.  Have children sort their word cards based on letters, sounds, or key words.  Guide students in reflecting on what’s the same and what’s different.  Grouping words with their beginning letters and then putting them in alphabetical order is another sorting plus ordering activity that will serve future dictionary work!  Remember, always think ahead!

Easy Sight Word Flash Cards Kinney Brothers Publishing

Flash Cards

Making sentences is a great way to get kids to review and use learned words to make more orthographic connections.  Here, using flash cards not as a means to drill, but a way of exploring new connections gives students a creative way to build on lessons learned.  Challenge your kids to see who can make the most surprising sentences!

Kinney Brothers Publishing

Word Games

Word games are a fun way to reinforce sight words and can include I Have/Who Has activities, word search and crossword puzzles, and many board game type games.  Introducing and playing these kinds of games in class is important.  Students may be playing these kinds of games in their own language, but the only opportunity to do so in English may be in your classroom.

Easy Sight Words I Have Who Has Kinney Brothers Publishing

Sight words promote confidence. Because the first 100 sight words represent over 50% of English text, a child who has mastered the list of sight words can already recognize at least part of a sentence.  Sight words provide clues to the context and promote reading comprehension.

As you move from ABCs through emergent reader activities, you’ll want to have reading goals in place.  As a teacher, it is important to be able to recognize when a student has a command of the sounds of the alphabet, achieves the concept of word, is displaying rudimentary reading ability, and finally, capable of decoding and deriving meaning from connected text.  These concepts must be developed in this order to achieve reading fluency.  You won’t get there without teaching sight words.  The habits that you build into the children’s learning activities will help them to acquire new words more quickly, build on their knowledge base to infer meaning, and progress more confidently in their studies.

If you are interested in more of the same kinds of exercises illustrated in this post, check out my Easy Sight Words worksheets for ESL students.  If there are activities that you use in class that are not listed here, help a teacher out and leave a comment!

Easy Sight Words Kinney Brothers Publishing     Easy Sight Words 2 Kinney Brothers Publishing







As always, best of luck in your classes!

Donald Kinney

Kinney Brothers Publishing


[1] Ravitch, Diane. (2007). EdSpeak : A Glossary of Education Terms, Phrases, Buzzwords, and Jargon. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, ISBN 1416605754.






A Game with Legs

Animal I Have Who Has Activity Set

I have… Who has…

‘Reading, speaking, and listening’ is the triadic core of this all-in-one activity – and I wish I’d known about it sooner.

I Have – Who Has activities are very simple, easy to set up, can be played with just about any age or grade level, and importantly, can be played again and again as students progress.  They’re perfect for centers or a whole class exercise, as a warm up and a cool down activity.  The topic is interchangeable and, what I’d like to show you in this post, can be extended to get even more out of the game.

I use this activity not only for lessons learned from my textbooks (see my last post), but also extra vocabulary that can only be practiced through games and activities – like flags, sports, or clothing.  If you use another textbook series or want to create games with your own vocabulary ideas, I’ve provided a blank game template at the end of this post to get you started.


Here are two very simple I Have – Who Has sets I created to get my youngest students started playing.  They’re both free to download from my ESL store.  I have 20+ sets available with a variety of vocabulary banks.  I hope I can convince you to check them out and start playing in your own students!


Numbers I Have Who Has Activity SetABC I Have Who Has Activity Set






Again, I Have – Who Has activities are very easy to set up and play. Once students understand the concept, you’ll never have to explain it again.  Simply deal the cards out to however many are playing and have them arrange the cards face up on the table in front of them. Players must be able to see all of their cards.   Then step back.  It’s their game.

All of my game sets have designated “Begin” and “End” cards. The player with the “Begin” card reads their card first by asking the question, “Who has…?”   Whoever has the next card reads their card by stating, “I have…” and asking in turn, “Who has…?” After reading a card aloud, the card is finished and turned over.  When the player with the “End” card reads their card, the game is finished.

Many of the game sets in my collection also have differentiated versions depending on the vocabulary bank.  For example,  Clock I Have Who Has has separate games for the time elements students have learned: hours, half-hours, quarter-hours, etc.  Verb I Have Who Has has three sets; one with phrasal verbs.  The ABC and Phonics cards have letters and phonetic associations so you can play different games each time and challenge kids with prompts.  Click on the images below to learn more about each set and download previews.


Verb I Have Who Has Activity SetCVC I Have Who Has Activity SetCommunity Places I Have Who Has Activity SetABC Phonics I Have Who Has Activity SetClock I Have Who Has Activity SetNumber I Have Who Has Activity Set

Language Variations

You can see how the game can be adapted for a lot of Q&A practice.  With the goal of getting students to use language they normally wouldn’t use in a classroom setting, you can set the sentence patterns and change them each time the game is played.


Community Places I Have Who Has Activity Set

For example, with the Community Places set, determine the language used with these kinds of sentences:

  • I have airport.  Who has restaurant?
  • I’m at the barbershop.  Who is at the fire station?
  • I’m going to the dentist.  Who is going to the hospital?
  • I want to go to the station.  Who wants to go to the bank?
  • I went to the beauty salon.  Who went to the pool?


Food I Have Who Has Activity Set

With Food I Have – Who Has, try this kind of language:

  • I have salad.  Who has soup?
  • I like apples.  Who likes broccoli?
  • I am eating pasta.  Who is having juice?
  • I want potato chips.  Who wants cake?


Flag I Have Who Has Activity Set

With Flags I Have – Who Has there are a number of language patterns that can be used:

  • I have Taiwan.  Who has Italy?
  • I am in Mexico.  Who is in Brazil?
  • I went to Korea.  Who went to Indonesia?
  • I’m going to go to China.  Who is going to go to Canada?

Extend the Exercise

Now, here are some ways to make the game walk across the room!

  • For additional language practice, and to get the kids familiar with their cards before playing, take the opportunity to do a Q&A with each student.  For example, if the game set is using verbs, ask the students questions like, “What are you doing?” or “What did you do yesterday?”  As each card has two verbs,  students can work in small groups or do a round-robin type Q&A.
  • Up the ante on the game by setting a timer and having kids try to ‘beat the clock.’  Post a chart on the wall with group names and challenge classes against each other.
  • In a usual game, a player directs their question to the whole class.  This keeps everyone on their toes and listening.  Try having students move amongst each other asking individually, “Do you have…”  When they find their card partner, they stick together by linking arms or holding hands.  Eventually, the entire class becomes one connected line reflecting the order of the game.
  • Have students sit in a circle.  The player with the “Begin” card asks the person next to them, “Do you have…”  If not, the player answers, “No, I don’t.” and asks the same question to the person sitting next to them in a Q&A chain until the person with that card says, “Yes, I do.” and starts a new question cycle.  Once a person reads their card, they drop out of the circle until only one player is left.  I recommend holding the “End” card so students don’t know when the game will end.
  • Have students arrange the cards in a dominoes fashion on a desktop.  This will work with any set of the I Have – Who Has cards.
  • Set the cards up like a ‘Concentration’ or ‘Pairs’ activity with the cards facing down and the Begin card facing up.  The next card has to be the “Who Has…” aspect from the Begin card.  Leave the matched cards face up on the table or lined up outside of the playing area.  You can also play by finding random pairs.  This really gets the kids thinking forward and backward as they try to find the matching cards.
  • Before sending your kids home, distribute the cards and have the kids line up in the order of the game.  Basically, they’ll have to play the game again to negotiate their place in line.  Once lined up, collect the cards and send the kids home!  This is so much more productive and entertaining than fifteen kids rushing the door to be first in line!

You can see that these kinds of exercises will work well for any grade level or language ability, from kindergarten through adults.  Please help me add to this list by letting me know how you play in class!

As any ESL teacher knows, the value of a game is only as good as the language that can be practiced.  I Have – Who Has activities, though not a game that ends with a winner or loser, has the potential to involve students with all the components of learning a foreign language: reading, speaking, and listening.

If you want to get started making your own I Have/Who Has activities, I’ve created a pdf template to get you started.  It’s free!

As always, best of luck in your classes!

Donald Kinney

Kinney Brothers Publishing