5 Tips for Teaching Sight Words - How to Make Them Stick!

Today we're talking all about sight words.  Specifically, my top 5 effective tips for making sight words STICK! 

So often we as teachers focus on assessing our student's sight word automaticity in isolation, but overlook the need to reinforce that same instant recall when identifying sight words in context.  We assume that easily reading sight words in context will be a by-product of focused instruction of words in isolation, right?!

TRUTH:  I would always get so frustrated when my kids would recall words in isolation with NO problem, but when reading them in context...it was like crickets!  Complete and utter silence.  WHA?!  How many times would I say to them, "Baby...I know you know that word!  You JUST read that word for me yesterday!!!!" while they stare back at me blankly and wonder what in the world I'm talking about.  Can anybody else relate?!

Teaching & reinforcing sight words in isolation is an integral piece of the puzzle, but it's not the only piece.  We need to remember to pair that same instruction with opportunities for kids to explore sight words in context as well.  Guided reading is the perfect time to provide our kids with these experiences (reading & identifying sight words in leveled texts, etc.), but we can also transfer these same opportunities to whole group activities as well.  Introducing & reinforcing sight words in context helps our kids to build an understanding of how these words are used in everyday language, thus establishing the value & importance of word recognition  (both in and out of context).

Here are some ideas for identifying and reading sight words in context...

This is one of my favorite activities and typically a favorite among kids, too.  The idea behind this activity is to choose 2-3 different sight words and incorporate them in a written message to your kids.  I loved making this a part of my morning message.  Before showing my kids the message, I would cover up the targeted sight words with sticky notes.  During whole group, I would read the message aloud to my kids while pointing to each word.  When I'd point to the sticky note, instead of saying the targeted sight word, I'd say "BEEP" (like the "bleep" sound you hear when there's a cuss on TV ;)), and keep on reading.  I'd prompt the kids to help me "beep", too!  Now can you see why this was a class favorite?! ;)

The objective of this activity is to prompt students to listen for context clues to determine which sight word best fit into each sentence.  After reading the message one time through, I would go back and read aloud each sentence one at a time and pause when I'd get to a sticky note.  I'd prompt the kids to tell me what sight word best fit in the sentence and they would use the bank of sight word cards on the chart paper to determine the missing word.  After guessing, I'd remove the sticky note to reveal the sight word and then re-read the sentence again and ask questions like, "Did that make sense?", "Is there another word that would make sense there?", etc.

Cloze sentences are a great extension of this activity.  You can easily create cloze sentences using sentence strips  and sight word flashcards.  Place them in a pocket chart,read, and prompt students to place the matching word in the empty space.  I scaled down this idea for use in small group by adding cloze sentences to my Sight Word Support binder.  This is just a resource I kept at my guided reading table and would use to quickly reinforce sight word recognition with my small groups.  Oftentimes I would read the cloze sentences aloud and prompt the kids to guess the missing word or even use letter tiles to spell the missing words.  I would also pass out cover-up cards and have the kids use counters to cover-up the missing word which gave me the freedom to quickly assess understanding of all kids in the group at once.  This was a great way to practice identifying and reading words in context in a small group setting.

Instead of focusing solely on the visual appearance of a word (rote memorization), remember to draw the student's attention to the attributes of the words as well.  It's important to give our kids opportunities to analyze words and process them in detail.  Looking at the vowels, consonants, number of letters, beginning letter(s), ending letter, etc. is powerful and helps kids to make concrete connections and process words on a deeper level.  This doesn't have to be something that takes up a ton of your instructional time, so let me share with you how I was able to incorporate this easily & effectively.

This activity is easy to implement and very effective.  Place 3-5 sight word cards in a pocket chart (or display on an easel/white board. You could even write them on chart paper!). Choose a word from the set as your "secret" word and don't tell the kids which word you've chosen.  Tell the kids, "I'm thinking of a word...." and describe it's attributes before prompting students to guess your secret word.  For example, "I'm thinking of a word.....that starts/ends with a vowel;  that starts/ends with a consonant;  that rhymes with _____; that has ___ vowels and ____ consonants;  that begins with a tall letter; that ends with a short letter; that means _____.; etc."  You can choose to describe your secret word using one prompt or several...whatever works best for your group(s)!  Prompt students to guess the word, point to it, spell it, etc.  This can be done with several different words in a 3-5 minute time span and makes a great warm-up for a small or whole group activity.

To piggyback off the idea of "I'm thinking of a word...", I created a set of Sight Word Prompts to use during small group/guided reading.  These prompts are broken down into sets of 5 & 10 sight words (to target the various needs of my students) and cover a wide variety of prompts to help kids focus on the various attributes of different words.  Students are given a cover-up card labeled with sight words.  I also pass out a set of counters to the group.   I call out the prompts and the kids have to cover-up the matching word on their card described by the attributes read aloud from the prompt.   This activity takes anywhere from 3-5 minutes and is perfect to quickly assess understanding and provide immediate feedback and intervention as needed.

I also carried this idea into our whole group activities with the Sight Word of the Day.  First, I laminate this focus card and display it on our white board.  Then I choose a (sight) word of the day and write it in the space provided.  I typically write the vowels in red to bring attention to those attributes and visually display the difference btween vowels & consonants.  We work together to break down the word and study it's attributes as well as make connections with the word of the day to other words in our vocabulary or on our word wall.  My kids LOVE this!!! 

To extend our whole group word study, I created printables to go along with this activity so that my kids would have the opportunity to independently practice identifying the attributes of the different words we were learning.  This might be something they would choose to complete as a fast finisher activity.

I'm fascinated by brain research, so when I found this idea on Pinterest five years ago I implemented it immediately.  And lo and behold, it worked!!!    According to brain specialist, Fritz Mengert, using a red dot when teaching and/or reinforcing sight words will improve students' word retention and automatcity.  The idea behind the red dot is to place it in the center of a word which will help kids focus on the middle of the word rather than just the beginning. How many times have you had a student quickly look at a word and guess what it says based on the beginning sound alone?  That's been my experience too many times to count!!  I was so excited to try this strategy with my kids and even more thrilled when I realized that it actually worked!  I'm not saying the quick guessing didn't disappear completely, but it was significantly reduced.  My kids were focusing on the beginning, middle, and end of each word we were learning.  

I wrote out each of our sight words on an index card and drew a red dot in the center of each word using a red marker.  I would spend about 2-3 minutes of our guided reading small group time to review these words with my kids.  We'd discuss them a little bit each day (Monday-Wednesday) before guided reading instruction.  Then we'd play BANG! (incorporating these words) on Thursdays and Fridays.  And they got it!!!  Pretty cool stuff!  My philosophy is to try everything at least once and I'm so glad I gave this one a go!

We can't expect our kids to improve their retention and automaticity if we don't provide them with the resources to be able to see the words as often as possible.  It's so important to be mindful about making sight words visible.  When I first started teaching...okay, so the first five years or so...I honestly didn't see the value in word walls.  In all honesty, I thought it was consuming too much real estate in the landscape of my classroom.  Hello!!! Wall space is limited and PRECIOUS.  I wanted to display #allthecutethings.  Word walls were anything but that.  Remember earlier when I said that I love brain research?!  Well I do.  And my whole outlook on word walls changed after doing some research of my own.  

Did you know that brain research has proven that kids need 6-12 exposures to a word for it to become embedded in their working memory?

Brain research has also proven that our brains are actually programmed to see in borders.  If you have the opportunity to section off your word walls like the examples in the pictures above, I would *highly* recommend trying this in your own classroom.  I'm a big believer in giving kids every opportunity I can give them to be successful and this small, but transformational, design tip works wonders for our littlest learners!

Speaking of word walls, I think it's extremely important to teach our kids HOW to use them.  Can I be honest with you for a second?  (Let's be real...I'm nothing if not totally transparent ;) Ha!)When I was in a traditional classroom setting, I was the teacher who had REALLY big ideas and great intentions at the beginning of every school year.  In reality, I was more of the teacher who stayed at school until midnight the night before parent/teacher conferences putting all of my words on my empty word wall.  #teacherconfession.

We so often neglect the word wall in all of it's glory because we just don't know how to best utilize it.  We adamantly insist that our kids to "use the word wall as a resource!", but fail to teach them HOW to use it in a way that will enrich what they're learning and aid in retention and identification. My ineptitude in this area forced me to do some serious research and create a bank of ideas and activities to teach my kids so that they could best utilize this resource in their daily activities.  I needed to give them the chance to put the word wall to use in their everyday word work activities.  This was transformational!  Teach your kids how to use the word wall and provide them with opportunities to use it as often as possible.

You can read more about my Word Wall, ideas, and activities...as well as grab several Word Wall Freebies....in THIS BLOG POST.

In addition to the Word Wall, I labeled my tables with sight words.  I had five tables in my room...four students per table...and hung the sight words above each table.  When I'd call kids to the carpet....or to line up...I'd say something alond the lines of, "Table YOU...come have a seat on the carpet.  Table SAID...line up at the door".  This kind of forced the kids assigned to those words to be able to identify them.  I was very intentional about where these words were placed.  If I knew a particular student needed reinforcement with a certain word, I placed that word above his/her table.  I kept the words above the tables for 1-2 weeks, depending on how quickly the students were able to retain and recall the words in both isolation and in context (I assessed this once a week).  You can also use this same idea as a behavior management incentive. Write the words displayed above the table on the white board and award points to each group (word) based on positive reinforcement.  The table with the most points at the end of the day or week gets an incentive (no shoes for the day, writing with markers, 10 extra minutes of tech time, etc.)

Don't limit visibility to the four walls of your classroom.  Give your students opportunities to identify and read sight words before they even walk into the room!  My most favorite idea for incorporating this quick recognition is in the form of high fives because who doesn't love a good high five in the morning?!  Trace & cut out hand templates...or use the pre-cut hand templates like THIS or THIS....and label each with a different sight word.  Adhere the hands to the wall right outside of your classroom door at arm's reach (not too high...the kids will need to be able to reach them!).  Before your kids can enter the room, they need to give each hand a high five as they read the word on the hand aloud.  If they're unable to correctly identify the word, use that moment to quickly re-teach...point out a specific attribute, rhyming word, etc. and move along.  Keep the words up on the wall for a week or two or until you feel that your students are able to recall each word with automaticity.

We're all familiar with the age old adage, "practice makes perfect".  The more our kids are given opportunities to explore & practice building, reading, and identifying sight words, the better they will be at recognizing & reading them in isolation and in context.  Repetition & consistency is key!

I think the easiest way to give kids repeated opportunities to build and and identify sight words is to incorporate a sight word station in your room.  Kids can visit the sight word station in the mornings for morning work, during center time, or even as a fast finisher activity.  I found that the key to making this station successful was to provide a variety of activities that didn't have to be frequently changed (aka - hands-on, no or limited printables).  By keeping the activities consistent and allowing students to make their own choices regarding which activities to complete, they were able to build familiarity and could complete the provided activities efficiently and successfully.

These materials were fixtures in my sight word center.  Since I differentiated my sight word instruction, each of my kids had their own ring of sight words they would take to the center to practice and they were given the autonomy to choose how they practiced their words.  This gave them ownership over what and how they were learning and made the "buy-in" so much more authentic and the outcome & engagement successful.

I taught my kids to build words using letter tiles and magnetic letters and baking sheets. We used THESE FREE PLAY-DOH WORD MATS to build & write sight words.  My kids also loved using wikki stix and pipe cleaners to make letters and assemble them into words.  The small Magna Doodles were always a favorite.  Kids loved writing their words and watching them magically disappear.  Aren't Kindergarten and First Grade babies the best?!?!

I kept a set of pony beads in a container with a set of pipe cleaners (cut in half).  I prompted my kids to create word bracelets and allowed them to wear those throughout the day (they had to return the beads and pipe cleaners back to the station before the end of the day.).  This was a great way to incorporate fine motor skills into learning as well (a skill severely lacking in today's kids!!!).  One of my darling girls loved creating sentence bracelets.  She would make several different word bracelets and then place them on her arm one after the other to make a full sentence.  She was a HOOT!  But boy was she engaged!

I kept a set of spelling sticks in a container in my station to give my kids more of a guided choice in practicing their words.  If there wasn't enough space to sit in the station, they could remove a stick from the container and take it to a spot in the classroom where they could work independently.  I love that this activity offered SO many different ways to practice sight words and my kids loved the multitude of choices as well.  There was always a new way to practice!   Instead of making them all available at the same time, I would limit them to 5-7 choices bi-weekly.  Then I'd change them up as the novelty wore off.  I made sure to spiral the activities throughout the year so they had many opportunities to repeat the activities.

It seems like every child I know LOVES to stamp, so giving them options to stamp with different mediums is a great way to provide repeated opportunities for practice.  This is one of my favorite ideas.  Tiny legos and play-doh!  How great is that?!  Not just building the word, but building each letter within the word as well and focusing on the attributes, too.

As I said before, most of the materials in our sight word station were hands-on.  I had a VERY limited amount of printables available because 1. I hated making copies! and 2. I felt my kids were so much more engaged in hands-on activities vs. worksheets.  This activity required a bit more thinking on their part because they had to determine the beginning sound of each picture in the set, stamp them, and then identify & read the new word and write it in a sentence.  And because they got to solve a mystery, they were all over it!

I copied three different sets each week and placed each set in a labeled drawer.  Each drawer contained the mystery sheet as well as a scratch-off class list.  This ensured that my kids were only doing this activity 3 times (at the most) each week.  Sometimes I'd only make one or two available depending on the week.  They'd remove the scratch-off list,  use a vis-a-vis to cross out their name, and then take a printable.  They wouldn't be able to take another printable from that drawer until I wiped the slate clean.  This was an easy way to keep them accountable and on-track while working independently.

Speaking of mysteries, my kids LOVED hide-and-seek words!  I cut up small pieces of white construction paper and wrote various sight words on them using a white crayon.  I gave my kids the option of using watercolors or markers to reveal the hidden word.  I also gave my kids the freedom to create their own hide-and-seek words and encouraged them to work with a partner, prompting their peers to guess the hidden word using the prompts & directives they were familiar with from our "I'm thinking of a word..." whole group activity.  I think they liked being able to create much better than just revealing!

In addition to building and manipulating words, I also gave my kids multiple options for repeated reading & identification.

I was constantly asking for (school appropriate) magazines.  My kids used their personal sight word rings & highlighters to search through the magazines & identify the words in text using a highlighter that matched those on their rings.
Each student had their very own Word Collector Notebook as well.  They could search through magazines, find the words, cut them out, and glue them inside of their notebooks.  They absolutely LOVED this one.  You can grab your Word Collector Notebooks by clicking the pic below.

Another example of giving students repeated practice in identifying and reading sight words would be to incorporate sight word fluency sentences students can read independently.  These can be stored in plastic sheets and kept in a binder.  Teach students how to remove the sheets from the binder and take them to a spot in the classroom where they can read these independently.  

The idea behind this activity is to identify the word, read it in isolation, and then read it in context three different times (rebus sentences).  After those tasks are complete, they can take it a step further by rolling a die and writing the sentence that matches.  Allow your kids to use whisper phones and voice cards to read the sentences.

Voice cards are great for reading with expresession and intonation and help tremendously with reading fluency.  My kids were able to use these voice cards in their sight word fluency center as well as in the sight word station.

You can read more about my Sight Word Fluency Center HERE.

There are MANY different ways to make instruction engaging and effective, but these 5 tips are my go-to's.  Please feel free to leave a comment and share your tips for making sight words stick!  The more ideas, the better!!

(***Amazon affiliate links are included in this post.  Purchasing items through the Amazon affiliate links included in this post may result in a commission for the author.***)


  1. Wow! What a wealth of activities in your blog post!! Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Wow! What an amazing blog post. I appreciate all these great ideas. I am always looking for new ideas to use with my students. Can't wait to incorporate some of your ideas. Thanks!!

  3. There are so many things I love that you have shared. I have read this section several times. I loved the sight word collection notebook. I think I'll use this for a rotation during guided reading groups. Thank you very much for everything

  4. I really like the idea of actually interacting with the Word Wall. I even relocated mine during Spring Break, just it is more visually accessible.

  5. You have so many absolutely adorable ideas for sight words in the classroom. I LOVE the bracelets!

    Reading with Mrs. D

  6. This has been a fantastic resource to read at this point in the school year (We don't have spring break until April 17th!). It's blogs like this that keep me motivated and eager to keep improving my work as a teacher. Question: How are the activities introduced to the students? Are they explained and modeled whole group first?