Learning to Read: Sight Words and Phonics Together

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by Becky Spence

In the world of literacy, the idea of learning words by sight has been highly debated for a few decades as the literacy pendulum has swung back and forth between phonics and sight words. I believe, based on reading research, that kids need both sight words and phonics as they are learning to read and write. But sight words (I’m using sight words interchangeably with high frequency words for our purposes) and phonics do not have to be at opposing ends of the spectrum. They actually have more in common than you might think.

Using Sight Words in Your Phonics Instruction

If you look up the term sight words online, you are sure to find something along the lines of, “sight words cannot be sounded out” or that they are “non-phonetic” in nature. While this may be true of a small percentage of them, many of them actually fit right into the phonics rules young readers and spellers need to learn. So why not integrate some common sight words right into your phonics instruction?


Teaching Sight Words and Phonics Together

The two most common sight word lists available are the Dolch Word List and Fry’s Word List. And believe it or not, the majority of the high frequency words on those lists fit nicely with beginning phonics patterns. To demonstrate this, I went through both word lists and created a printable list, free to download HERE.

Sight Word and Phonics Correlations for Short and Long Vowels Only

The list shows the correlation between the Dolch lists (PP through 3rd grade), Fry’s first 100 and second 100 lists, and the short and long vowel patterns typically taught in Kindergarten and 1st grade. Most of the remaining words on the list (such as down, good, or first) fit nicely under other phonics skills typically taught in late 1st and early 2nd grade.


sight words and phonics words in sort

Instead of separating sight words and phonics, I also combined them in my recently released Short Vowel Word Study app. Phonics patterns and sight words are taught side-by-side to help readers and spellers make the connection between the two.


A Word of Caution with Sight Words and Phonics

Sight Words and Phonics Instruction Do Not Always Line Up. While we may be completely convinced that sight words can fit right into phonics, the tricky part about this approach is that our younger readers may not be ready for phonics instruction with the more complicated phonics patterns (found in words like three or down). Because these words contain more advanced phonics patterns that the child may not be developmentally ready for, these common words needed for early reading and spelling should be learned as sight words.

What about the exceptions? Yes, there are those “oddball” words. You know them. They are the ones that “break the rules.” Many of these words (such as been or said) don’t follow the phonics sound because the pronunciation has been changed over time. Still other words follow rules of their own. For example, we teach kids that words like give and have break the silent e rule, when in fact they are governed by the rule that no words in the English language end with the letter v.


integrating sight words and phonics

I like to include the exceptions in with the phonics instruction. For example, find visually fits the short i vowel pattern. But it does not make the short i vowel sound. Asking a child to read through the words and locate the “oddball” word is a great way to get kids to analyze and think critically about how words and word patterns work.


Instead of feeling like we have to pick sight words OR phonics, we should embrace the fact that they can be taught together. Sight words are, after all, quite the phonetic bunch!


More Sight Words/Phonics Ideas:


Short Vowel Word Study app from This Reading Mama


Becky Spence Headshot

Becky Spence is a blogger, author, speaker, and coffee drinker. She homeschools four little blessings who keep her on her feet (and knees). She is the author of This Reading Mama, where she shares lots of reading and writing activities as well as free literacy curricula and printables. Her two favorite places to hang out are Facebook and Instagram.


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