Sight words are a real struggle for many children and can often provide a source of frustration for their parents.


There has been a lot written in support of sight words, but for many children the complexity of the method is overwhelming.  In essence, the method relies on the idea that by having a good familiarity with commonly used words, those same words will be easily recognised (decoded) when reading.


Last month’s article discussed working memory and how it can be easily overloaded.  This relates to this topic also, because for a child experiencing difficulties with reading, the learning and recall of a large number of sight words will potentially overload the working memory.


To try and understand the feeling your child might experience, place yourself in their shoes by attempting to learn a new language, like German, by learning 100 or 200 sight words in German and then trying to read a passage.  Attempting to read via this idea of sight words is a daunting thought.  It is simply impossible for many children.


In essence, the concept is that when a word is seen, it is instantly recognised, just like when the child sees their own name.  It does not need to be decoded using phonics.  The child instantly recognising their own name demonstrates that they are able to ‘sight read’ at a neurological level, but recognising a couple of words is inadequate for comprehensive reading.


A way of creating the ‘sight word effect’, but not creating the overload of hundreds of words is through ‘re-reading’ or ‘priming’.  To do this, have the child read the same short passage over and over.  It might even need to be single short sentence.  Read, read and read the sentence again.  Spell the words, say the words, hear the words, imagine the words, put them into a different sentence.  Read the passage forwards, backwards and jumping around.   It may be only 5 to 10 words, but these words will become so well known that your child will know them as well as their own name.


Another way of considering this is from the perspective of ‘one step easier’.  If your child is struggling to do a given task, e.g. learning 20 sight words, try 15 or 10 or 5 or 2!  Make it easier and easier until your child is able to succeed.


You may be in a quandary that the teacher wants 20 sight words learned for the week, but it is probably better to achieve five than zero.


It is interesting to observe children learning to read because their progress often begins slowly but as they progress, their learning rate accelerates.  This is quite normal.  It is not necessary to panic and feel rushed by the 20 sight words goal.  Just manage learning a couple first, then a few more and before long your child will be up with the best.


For more tips on helping your child read consider looking at our website at  You will find archived articles previously published in this magazine.