Friday, November 19, 2010

Ideas for Teaching Sight Words for ELLs/ESL Students

Why Teach Sight Words?
One effective approach to teaching reading to low-level readers is to teach sight words. Sight words are words that occur so often in a text that readers should be able to read them by sight without having to decode them. Sight words also consist of words that cannot be decoded and must be memorized by sight. Knowing these high-frequency words and being able to recognize non-decodable words by sight are extremely important skills for developing reading fluency.

In order to read well, students need to read sight words very quickly. They need to memorize them. Students should memorize a few sight words at a time.

Objectives of Teaching Sight Words
The following objectives serve as a guide for your sight word instruction. Students should be able to do each of the following:
1. Associate the appearance of each sight word with its sound/pronunciation (sight-to-sound correspondence).
2. Read sight words in context.
3. Recognize sight words quickly and effortlessly (rapid recognition).

Activities to Practice These Objectives
1. Promote Sight-to-Sound Correspondence
• Dictate a sight word, and have students point to or hold up the card for the sight word they hear.
• Dictate a sight word, and have students write the sight word they hear on the board or on their papers.
• Write a sight word on the board in the correct letter sequence (e.g., and) and another form of the word with the letters scrambled (e.g., nda). Have students choose which word is the correctly spelled form of the sight word.

2. Promote Reading Sight Words in Context

• Provide students with reading materials that are appropriate to their levels and that can be marked up. Have students circle, underline, or use a marker to highlight the sight words found in a prescribed reading selection. Ask students to notice how frequently sight words occur in context.
• Have students scan reading material for a particular sight word. Give students a certain amount of time to do this. Have them count how many times they were able to find the sight word in the time allowed, and see which student or student pair was able to find the sight word the most times.
• Write sentences on the board, or prepare a worksheet that contains sentences from reading material being used in class. Insert a blank where a sight word belongs in each sentence. Have students fill in the correct sight word. (Note: If using this activity with ESOL students, additional instruction on using articles and prepositions may be required to successfully complete the activity.)

3. Promote Rapid Recognition (recognize sight words quickly)
• Modify the “Slap” game by using sight words in place of slides.
• Divide the students into two teams. Have one student from each team at the board. Dictate a word, and have the students write the word as fast as they can. The first student to finish writing the word correctly wins.
• Use individual alphabet cards to spell a sight word with the letters scrambled in an incorrect letter sequence. Have students unscramble the letters as fast as they can to make a real sight word.

Teacher Note: Students with dyslexia often skip sight words while reading because they have difficulty forming a pictorial reference for sight words that are abstract in nature. They can form a picture of words such as dog, hat, and other nouns, but words like and, for instance, are more difficult to reference. To address this concern, have students draw a picture of and. For example, a student might draw himself or herself and a friend, ham and eggs, or mother and father. This activity helps students get a mental image of the word’s meaning.

See my other blog posts about presenting on this topic at the International TESOL Conference here and here.

Information adapted from Reading Horizons Comprehensive Teacher's Manual. Used with permission.


  1. Hello Heidi,

    I just found your sight. What great work you have been doing! I wonder if you'd allow me to share your ideas about teaching sight words and phonemic awareness to a small group of teachers at a community college on the east coast who are interested in improving their teaching reading to beginners. I would, of course, give you full credit for your work, and direct them to your site.
    Please let me know.
    Fellow Utah friend and ESL teacher,

    1. Holly, I'd love for you to share! Thanks for taking an interest!

  2. Wonderful ideas! I teach ESL online with an E-learning company. I will modify these strategies for my forum. Thank you so much! :)