How To Effectively Assess and Teach Sight Words

Disclaimer: There are links to the products I have purchased from Amazon to organize my sight word system. Some of the links are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on a link and purchase the item, The Sassy Apple will receive a small commission.The price of the item is the same whether it is an affiliate link or not.

Teaching sight words is an area of reading instruction that I have tried to organize but by mid-year, I don’t have a clear idea of what words my students have mastered and which ones they still need to work on. This is partly because we assess them at the beginning of the year and then we don’t do it again until the end. Of course, we practice throughout the year but it hasn’t been as focused or individualized as I would like it to be. Taking into consideration that the top 300 sight words make up about 2/3 of all written material, this area of instruction is crucial for my students to become stronger readers.

After brainstorming and researching, this is the sight word system I have developed. It is by no means perfect but I don’t think there is a perfect system out there (trust me, I did a lot of researching but if you have one, let me know!). I have come to realize a system with intention and purpose is better than no system at all.

What have I done in the past?

My team has used Fry’s 1st and 2nd hundred words as our weekly spelling lists. Students practice at home Monday-Thursday and then test on Friday. However, we have a lot of “Friday spellers” aka students who do well on the test but never apply that to their writing and it doesn’t provide data about which words they know how to read.  This prompted me to do away with traditional spelling homework and tests.

What do I do instead?

How can I incorporate sight words into our daily routine AND assess in a meaningful way so that students are reading and writing sight words accurately? This is where I got stuck–reading and writing. I had to ask myself “Which one is more important?” Yes, that is a tough question but, ultimately, being fluent readers who comprehend is the top priority. And, according to research, “By having a large bank of words that they can read automatically, students spend less effort attempting to decode words and can devote greater cognitive resources to text comprehension” (January, Lovelace, Foster & Ardoin, 2017). In addition, the more words my students are fluently and accurately reading, the higher the likelihood that they will include them in their writing. Spelling and reading are closely linked in the findings that children who are good readers are usually good spellers. (Johnson, 2013)

Therefore, I have developed a student-guided sight word system which focuses on reading. It combines student readiness and accountability and ongoing, developmentally appropriate assessment.

Here is a quick overview:

  • The system consists of 9 lists (total of 146 words). These words are a combination of the Zeno, Fry and Dolch word lists. It also aligns with iReady lessons.
  • You will pre-assess students on reading the words (not writing…because if they can’t read them what does it matter that they can spell them?)
  • Students will work on their list until they feel ready to be tested (more on how they will communicate that later)
  • When they are ready, assess students using the flash cards. If they can read all of the words, then they move onto the next list.

How do I pre-assess?

For the pre-assessment, I print off a copy of each of the lists and staple them together in order. Students work their way through the lists while I check off the words on their individual tracking sheet. If a student misses one word, that is the list they will work on. They might know ALL of the words except one. That is okay. I want 100% accuracy with reading the words. And it is totally fine for them to be practicing reading and spelling familiar words. This will help even more with spelling words accurately in context. If a student is struggling with learning all the words on a list, cut the list in half! Do what is best for your student!

Where do students keep their lists?

I purchased library pockets and put my students names on them. I taped them on the wall right by our Word Work center. This way, they are super convenient to grab when getting ready to do a word work activity and students are more likely not to lose them since they are in plain sight!

Find the library pockets here.

When do I know students are ready to be assessed?

Eek!! This is my favorite part of the system. Students are the ones who decide when they feel ready to read their list. There is no pressure to do one list per week. This puts a lot of the responsibility and accountability on the students. Inside the library pocket is also a card that has their name and says “Ready to Read”. My students simply place this card in my library pocket to indicate they are ready to meet with me and read through their list.

How do I make time to assess?

Once a student has communicated that they are ready to read their list, I use guided reading time to assess them using the flashcards. I make sure they are NOT in the same order as they are on the list. This should take a minute or two tops. I do it at the very beginning of the guided reading group time while the other students at the table are re-reading previous text. Or, during transitions if things are going smoothly. If I have a handful of students who have requested to meet, I may have a free choice center rotation (typically on a Friday) so I can meet with all of them in one chunk of time.

What about writing the words? 

It starts with being able to read. So that is why my focus is on reading. The more words my students can read, the better readers they will be. Sounds simple, right?

I really don’t want my students to simply memorize the words so they can pass a test. I want them to transfer what they have practiced daily during word work into their writing. How does this happen? Practice. Practice. Practice. And more practice. Even then, sometimes it STILL doesn’t transfer. It takes time.

It takes extra work BUT once a week (or two or three), I pull a handful of my students’ writing journals. I sit down with their sight word assessment tracking sheet and check off which words they are spelling accurately. I also keep them handy during guided reading so I can do the same while they are reading.

How am I tracking progress?

I continue to use the same tracking sheet that I pre-assessed with. I keep one for each student in a folder close to my guided reading table. This way, it is  easy to grab whenever I need it which is almost daily!

How will my students practice?

My students will practice their list 3-4 times a week during reading centers at Word Work. (I used to have them study them for homework Monday-Thursday too but I decided to get rid of spelling homework this year.) I typically have 8-10 word work activities for them to choose from. Most are activities where they will use their list to practice reading and writing in fun ways. The other activities are pre-made sight word practice like this word Jenga center. You can find these blank wooden tiles here. 

 If you are interested in more word work activities, check out this post.

Finally, simply practicing independently is not enough. We MUST teach sight words as we do any other vocabulary words. But, now you can do this in a more organized manner and really hone it on words your students need to work on.  In planning for small groups, I pull out the tracking sheet folder and look at the lists my students are currently working on. Many times, your readers in the same guided reading groups will be working on or around the same lists. I choose 5-7 words to review during our small group lesson. Read Naturally outlines the steps for how a teacher can most effectively introduce and review sight words:

  • First, students watch the teacher read the word, spell the word, and then read the word again.
  • Next, students read the word, spell the word, and then read the word again with the teacher.
  • Finally, students read the word, spell the word, and then read the word again independently. (Hauth, 2014)

Then, we might discuss why the words don’t fit our regular spelling patterns. We might use highlighter tape to find them in our book. Or, play sight word memory. This explicit instruction and guided practice is necessary for continued success.

To get ALL of the sight word printable resources in this blog post
for free click here or on the picture below.

Happy Teaching!


Hauth, A. (2014). The best way to teach sight words. Read Naturally Blog

January, S. A., Lovelace, M. E., Foster, T. E., & Ardoin, S. P. (2017). A comparison of two flashcard interventions for teaching sight words to early readers.Journal of Behavioral Education, 26(2), 151-168. 

Johnson, M. (2013) The relationship between spelling ability and reading fluency and comprehension in elementary students. Northern Michigan University

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