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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Should I teach students to memorize sight words and monitor their progress?

Teacher question: I would love to see a blog post on whether to teach sight words/high-frequency words, and if there is any useful reason to track whether a student is learning them. My teachers are still teaching them in K and 1st, but more through reading and spelling them, decoding, and encoding them, in and out of text, and not by memorizing their shape. Yet, they are unsure of whether it is worth it to track which words they’ve learned and how much intervention to provide based on that data.

Shanahan’s response:

The short answer to both of your questions is, “yes,” but let’s make sure everybody gets this right.

What is sight vocabulary?

Sight vocabulary refers to all the words a reader can read or recognize immediately without hesitation or apparent sounding or mediation.

What are high-frequency words?

High-frequency words are those that appear relatively often in written or oral language. Frequency is determined by counting the words in texts.

Aren’t sight words and high-frequency words the same thing?

No, it’s important to distinguish these terms. Their confusion may lead to some unfortunate misunderstandings. For example, it may suggest that only certain words can be sight words — that isn’t the case. Any word can become a sight word, no matter its source or frequency. Or it may suggest that readers only need a small collection of sight words, 100 or 220 words. The real goal is much more extensive. Or it could lead some to think that rote memorization is the main way to remember words. That’s not the case either.

What is the best way to learn sight words?

When I was a first-grade teacher I noticed that early in the year my students had trouble remembering new words. We’d review and review, and the next day, the kids often didn’t remember them. Later in the year, I’d introduce new words and that was all it took for many of my students. They seemed to remember those without any effort. What a change!

That means my students weren’t only learning words; they were learning how to learn words. Later, researchers (e.g., Ehri, 1998; Ehri, 2014; Share, 2004) provided more systematic proof of what I’d witnessed and more elaborate theoretical explanations (e.g., orthographic mapping, self-teaching). Basically, phonics instruction – along with phonemic awareness and morphology — helps students to form an internal cognitive memory system that allows them to efficiently remember words.

To help kids develop sight vocabularies in the tens of thousands (which is the real goal), we should provide systematic instruction focused on spelling patterns, relationships between letters and sounds and spellings and pronunciations and meanings. That is where most of our word teaching efforts should be focused.

Are there benefits from rote memorization of some words early on?

There is the obvious benefit of motivation. In my experience, learning a bunch of abstract sounds doesn’t enthrall the average 5- or 6-year-old, while knowledge of real words can be a source of pleasure and pride. Words give a greater sense of accomplishment.

Also, there’s no reason to perseverate on isolated words or word lists for a long period while the students try to master an extensive set of grapheme-phoneme relationships and spelling patterns. Including some high-frequency words in a typical phonics curriculum enables students to begin to read texts almost from the beginning and that has both motivational and cognitive benefits (Solity & Vousden, 2009).

Most important, there is considerable evidence showing that students can generalize from memorized words to the decoding of not-yet-known words (Barr, 1972; Brunsdon, Coltheart, & Nickels, 2005; Fletcher-Flinn & Thompson, 2000; Kohnen, Nickels, & Coltheart, 2010; Kohnen, Levlin & von Mentser, 2020; Nickels, Coltheart, & Brunsdon, 2008; Thompson, Fletcher-Flinn, & Cottrell, 1999). As such, it might be best to think of this teaching as part of the phonics curriculum. No one knows exactly what gets stored in memory — abstract patterns, rules, or even words themselves — but including words in what we teach seems to help a bit.

Just as abstract spelling patterns and grapheme-phoneme correspondences can be generalized to new words, words themselves can serve as analogies facilitating the reading of new words and the application of decoding skills.

Is it harmful to have students memorize words?

There are folks who make that claim. They say that if you teach students to memorize any words you will disrupt their decoding or encourage guessing.

No research supports those cautions, and some of the sharpest eyes in the room argue against these groundless claims. For example, Castles, Rastle, and Nation (2018) wrote in response to this question:

“In our view, this concern is unwarranted, and the judicious selection of a small number of sight words for children to study in detail has its place in the classroom alongside phonics. As we have discussed, teaching phonics is crucial because it gives children the skills to translate orthography into phonology and thereby to access knowledge about meaning. However, when this is difficult because of spelling-to-sound complexities, there would seem to be a case for teaching children the pronunciations of a small number of such words directly, particularly those that they are likely to see very frequently in the texts they are reading (such as the, come, have, and said). In effect, this ensures that children can relate the visual symbols of writing to spoken language for as many words as possible and as early in their schooling as possible.” (p. 15)

Is there evidence showing that teaching students to memorize sight words improves reading achievement?

I depend upon studies designed to determine if the use of a certain curriculum or instructional approach provides a learning advantage to students; particularly those that consider whether that teaching generalizes to overall reading achievement rather than just gains in the skill taught. That kind of gold standard evidence does not exist with sight word teaching.

However, there are several studies showing that including such sight word teaching in phonics curricula can be effective — and even that such inclusion improves performance (Kohnen, Nickels, Coltheart, & Brunsdon, 2008; McArthur, Castles, Kohnen, Larsen, Jones, Anandakumar, & Banales, 2015; Price-Mohr & Price, 2017; Shapiro & Solity, 2008; Solity & Shapiro, 2008; Torgesen, 1999; Vellutino & Scanlon, 1986; Wright & Ehri, 2007). Adding word teaching to the phonics regimen was beneficial both in the regular classroom and with dyslexic students. The inclusion of such word teaching can speed beginning reading progress along a bit (Browder & Lalli, 1991; Colenbrander, Wang, Arrow, & Castles, 2000).

How do you teach a child to memorize a word?

Teaching this kind of memorization is pretty straightforward, but there are some key steps. For instance, it’s important to isolate the word from other visual distractions. Students when trying to learn a word need to look at it word, not at pictures or other words in a sentence. Make sure students’ attention is on the written word, then say the word and have students repeat it.

It may help to put the word into meaningful context to convey meaning or usage (Miles, McFadden, & Ehri, 2019). I do this orally. When teaching the word “with”, the teacher may say something like, “I play with my brother.” Who do you play with? With.” Students need to link the visual image of the letters “w-i-t-h” to the phonological representation /w/-/i/-/th/, and we want this visual and phonological information linked to the word’s meaning and grammatical function.

Have students analyze the letters and sounds of the word. Don’t focus on a word’s shape, but on its sequence of letters. Have students spell the word. Perhaps ask if they know the sounds of any of those letters, even if the spelling is irregular, and certainly point out any of the letters that have their usual sound. This not only helps students to learn that particular word but to use this knowledge more generally (Murray, McIlwaom, Wang, Murray, & Finley, 2019). Encourage students to visualize the word (“take a picture with your eyes”) and get them to write/spell the word without looking. Some teachers use the “copy-cover-compare” approach successfully (Joseph, Konrad, Cates, Vajcner, Everleigh, & Fishley, 2011).

Finally, a bit of drill and practice is in order. Reading that word again and again over time helps with memorization. This is where things like flashcards, word rings, word ladders, and the like can come in handy.

What about text?  

When first teaching a word, it is important to isolate it. But remember that one of the purposes for introducing words is to enable earlier text reading. Students should see these words in early instructional texts. They need to be able to read these words not just on flashcards, but in texts. The opportunity to confront these words in varied sentence contexts within controlled vocabulary readers or decodable texts should be part of the ongoing experience that follows their introduction.

Which words should we teach that way?

As has been recommended for 100 years, it is sensible to focus on high-frequency words since those will be the most useful to the child’s reading. A high-frequency word might be taught through memorization if its spelling is irregular or unusual or if the student has not yet learned the phonics skills that would support its decoding. Studies have shown that a relatively small number of words represent a large portion of the words that readers confront in text; for example, the first 100 words account for more than half the words we see in text (Fry, 1980). Knowing such words well should facilitate fluency and allow greater attention to the rest of the words.

Any other instructional advice?

Yes, those estimates of word frequency can be misleading. The first 100 words make up more than 50% of the words in texts, but only if you consider those words along with their common variants. The word “make” is included in those first hundred words, but it’s there because of make, making, and makes. That fact should suggest morphological work in which students transform sight words into various forms. What a great opportunity to explore the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings that inflectional and derivational morphemes present.

How many words should we have students memorize in this way?

Sight word teaching tends to be overdone. Some commercial programs go over the top including way too many words. The National Academy of Education released a report in which the experts recommended that kindergartners master about 18-20 such words (including their names). There is no research on this, but I think that is a reasonable (and smart) recommendation.

As for Grade 1, I’ve long encouraged teachers and parents to make sure students can read the 100 most frequent words in written English (Fry’s first 100 words). That sounds like a lot, but it includes those 18-20 words mastered in kindergarten. Likewise, more than 50 of those 100 words can be read directly and completely through the most common grapheme-phoneme relationships (e.g., it, he, but, not), and most of the others can be partially decoded with those skills. Of course, that means not all those words need to be taught through memorization. For second graders, emphasize the 300 most frequent words (which includes the 100 first-grade words — and, again, many of those can be learned and read through decoding).   

How much time should be devoted to such word memorization?

I’d not put much time into it … only about 3-5 minutes per day. I’ve found reports of 30-45-minute sight word memorization lessons, which I think is nuts. I have also located studies of 1-3-minute instruction — which makes me wonder if my 5 minutes is overkill.

Many teachers push at least some of this work out of the classroom. It’s an easy thing for parents to help with. One of my favorite principals tested all her first graders on the first hundred words. She gave the results to the teachers and parents and told them the kids needed to know them all by the end of year. Most of the kids nailed it by Thanksgiving, mainly due to parental involvement. Word memorization should be a tiny part of the word knowledge instruction that students receive.

Should we monitor student progress with sight vocabulary?

I think so. That’s the only way to know which words the students know and how much progress they are making. But this can be done during the instruction. For instance, while students are practicing reading those words with partners, a teacher can easily and efficiently check several individual students’ progress with 10-20 words. No extra testing time needed.

Selected comments

Comment from Marie

Thank you so much for this week’s blog post! It is very timely and helpful!

I’m still trying to wrap my head around Mark Seidenberg’s latest blog posts about how the “Science of Reading Movement is moving without much science.” You state above “We should provide systematic instruction focused on spelling patterns, relationships between letters and sounds and spellings and pronunciations and meanings” and “Master an extensive set of grapheme-phoneme relationships and spelling patterns.” While Seidenberg agrees with that, “Let there be no confusion: Beginning readers need instruction to gain foundational skills,” he also states that there is an “Overemphasis on phonics rules, sight words, spelling rules,” and that “Learning rules is slow. It is another form of rote learning. Learning a rule has a benefit: generalization. But, costs are very high and rules are not the only basis for generalization. Neural networks generalize without learning rules.”

Can you please help explain where that leaves a first grade teacher? How do we sift through all of this information to make informed decisions on what is best to teach our students?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Marie —

My advice is to stay to the “science of reading instruction” rather than the “science of reading.” When people are telling you how and what to teach, you should ask for direct evidence that teaching those things or teaching in those ways has been proven to benefit children’s learning. If someone says teachers “are teaching too much _______ (fill in the blank)” ask how they know that… how many schools/teachers have they observed in or what survey data are they dealing with? If they say that you should teach a particular thing, ask not about the basic cognitive or psychological research that makes them think that may be true, but about the classroom trials that have been run to test the claim?

I don’t believe that practitioners in any field should be determining their practice on the basis of basic science – the same standard that medical practitioners work under.


Comment from Lori

Our district uses sight word assessments as one of our major pieces of data. I find that there are kinders that come to me able to read over 100 word on the list but cannot read them in texts or come close to writing them. Any thought on this?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Lori —

That isn’t surprising. The benefits of rote memorization of lists of words are quite limited. Studies show that it is not enough to memorize a list of words but students need to see those words in text. In fact, that is one of the main reasons for teaching any words through memorization — to enable kids to read texts that their decoding skills are not yet sufficient for. You teach the words and then have students doing the rest of what is counseled above — have students read texts with those words in it, have students work with those words to recognize their different inflectional forms, etc.

Teach the words but then teach kids to use the words. You might consider testing students two ways on those words — once in isolation and once in text.


Comment from Ann Kay

What is your response to neuroscientist Dr. Stanislas Dehaene’s statement, “Whole word reading is a myth…the brain does not use the whole word shape”?
In the videos below, it appears that Dehaene is saying that skilled readers just become faster at accessing individual letters and their sounds rather than reading whole words. Neurologically, each sound is stored separately, so we actually have to activate and connect them to read words.

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Ann Kay —

Dehaene is correct (as far as I know), there is no such thing as reading words by shape. We’ve known for decades that readers, when reading, are looking at pretty much every letter as they proceed through a text. However, Dehaene is looking at what the brain appears to be doing during reading, but he ignores what the research on teaching has to say. For example, studies have shown that having words stored in memory help students to develop the process that Dehaene describes. Neuroscience has revealed some fascinating things about how people read. Unfortunately, it has — so far — told us very little about how people learn to read. There is nothing wrong with trying to drawn inferences from that very fallible brain research, but those inferences need to be consistent with what we know about learning.

Comment from Nancy

I’m not understanding why you would teach a child to memorize “with” when that can be decoded. Isn’t it better to save any memorization to those high frequency words that can’t be decoded?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Nancy —

It makes sense to memorize sight words when (1) the words are unusual in their spelling patterns and/or (2) when a student does not yet know the decoding skills needed to take on that word successfully. Words like “with” can be very useful in a decodable text but the /w/ sound is probably not going to be taught especially early in the phonics sequence. There is no good reason to avoid that word or the texts that might include it.

See all comments here  (opens in a new window)


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About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
April 14, 2022