Explicit Intervention in Sight Word Recognition

Intervention Overview

Explicit intervention in sight word recognition is designed to increase students' ability to recognize and read individual words using phoneme-grapheme mapping of regular parts and the explicit call out of irregular parts. They store the connected sounds and letters of words (along with their meaning) as instantly recognizable sight words. Sight word recognition intervention should focus on phoneme-grapheme mapping and not rely on practices such as the use of flashcards.

What is Sight Word Recognition?

Sight word recognition refers to the ability to instantly and effortlessly retrieve words, including ones spelled regularly and irregularly (Ehri, 2022). All words (not just irregularly spelled or high-frequency words) can become sight words read automatically from memory. Indeed, most of the words on this page are likely sight words to you if you are reading them quickly without needing to sound them out. Recent research supports teaching and learning sight word recognition aligned to orthographic mapping rather than through strategies focusing on visual memory (Ehri, 2014).

What is Orthographic Mapping?

Orthographic mapping is the mental process involved in remembering words and word parts for later, instant and effortless recall (Moats & Tolman, 2019). Orthographic mapping enables us to become efficient readers. During the orthographic mapping process, students build connections between specific pronunciations and specific letter strings in written words (Ehri, 2014). What we see and hear in a word gets processed together as a sight word in the brain. Phonemic awareness and letter-sound skills are central to orthographic mapping. 

Explicit Intervention in Sight Word Recognition

Lessons must target students’ proficiency with letter-sound correspondences and build knowledge of irregular parts of high frequency words. Student knowledge of phonemic awareness and phonics will facilitate orthographic (phoneme-grapheme) mapping, the process responsible for building students’ sight recognition of both regular and irregularly spelled words.

Preparing to Implement the Intervention

Before delivering intervention in sight word recognition, educators will need to fit the words targeted for intervention into phonics instruction. Group together high-frequency words with similar phonics patterns and teach them together. Plan explicit instructional routines that clue students into the sounds in words, such as those presented in the video, and teach the word parts students need to know “by heart.” Allow for students’ meaningful practice with target words through fluency drills, spelling/dictation, and reading words in connected text, making sure that students read words aloud as they are reading.

How to Teach:

Grouping of High-Frequency Words

Explicit Instruction

Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping

Grouping of High- Frequency Words

Group words by similar orthographic patterns, and teach words with similar patterns together.

Explicit Instruction

Teach letter-sound correspondences with continuous student-teacher interaction. Begin with teacher modeling, guided student practice, and students spelling of words independently. Include fluency drills for ongoing practice.

Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping

Teach students to map phonemes (individual speech sounds) to graphemes (printed letters) that represent sound. Call attention to graphemes to know "by heart".

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I get my students to remember the words we practice?

Memory for words occurs via an unconscious mental process called orthographic mapping. To facilitate orthographic mapping, students need to have phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge. Use the teaching strategies shown in the video or visit the resources below to help students retain words in memory via orthographic mapping.

Who benefits from explicit intervention in sight words?

Students with a limited sight vocabulary benefit from explicit intervention in sight words. You may notice that students in need of sight word intervention read without good fluency and expression. They may stop to decode practically all words while reading rather than being able to recognize them instantaneously upon sight.

Shouldn't high-frequency words be taught as single units to be memorized by "sight"?

Using whole-word memorization is inefficient and very difficult for many struggling readers.  Students' sight recognition increases when instruction helps students make connections to the sounds, spelling patterns, and meanings within words. 

Resources for Sight Word Interventions

Read this article by Linda Farrell, Tina Osenga, and Michael Hunter and learn how to organize high frequency words to fit into your decoding intervention.

Heart Word Magic is a teaching tool from Really Great Reading designed to help students learn to read words that aren’t very decodable.

Teach irregular words/heart words virtually or using classroom technology with Really Great Reading's online letter tiles for word building.

Review the presentation from an Ohio Literacy Lead that presents instructional strategies to teach sight words according to science.

The University of Florida Literacy Institute's Virtual Teaching Resource Hub features activities to assist teachers to teach foundational reading skills using technology.

This blog post from Sarah's Teaching Snippets describes how readers permanently store words as "sight words" and instructional implications for teaching.

Learn concrete strategies to boost students' memory for words and promote rapid, effortless word retrieval in this comprehensive program.

Read about practices that facilitate orthographic mapping and automaticity with reading and spelling.

Additional Learning Opportunities

Watch Strategies for Teaching Irregular, “Tricky” Words presented by Dr. Maria Murray of the Reading League.

Watch Understanding the Role of Phonemic Proficiency in Boosting Reading Skills in Struggling Readers presented by Dr. David Kilpatrick.

Listen to NO MORE Sight Words with Dr. Katie Pace Miles on this podcast developed by the Alabama Literacy Network.

Join Dr. Katie Pace Miles on this podcast developed by Glean Education. Listen to How to Make Sight Word Instruction and Reading Information More Effective.

Join Dr. Bruce McCandliss on this podcast developed by Amplify as he explains the role of sight recognition in the science of reading.

Watch the on demand webinar What is Orthographic Mapping and Why is it Important?