The Foundation for Fluency: Sight Word Development


The Foundation for Fluency: Sight Word Development

Sight words:


1) words not phonically regular and assumed to be learned “by sight” (i.e., can’t be sounded out)


2) high frequency words typically taught as whole word units in kindergarten and first grade


3) any word that is immediately recognized “by sight,” that is, any previously learned words that are part of a person’s sight vocabulary, regardless of whether they are “regular” or “irregular.”


It is only this third definition that was used in David Kilpatrick’s book, “Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties”  


It is also the definition used by researchers. It is this definition that I have used for this blog.

– Lorna Wooldridge


If you have been following my blogs on the Big Five, from the initial introduction to the National Reading Panel and the Big Five, you will now understand why a child requires a strong foundation in phonological and phonemic awareness, as well as phonics, to build their sight word vocabulary. Sight words are words that are instantly recognized, regardless of whether they are phonetically regular or irregular. You will also understand that without a large sight word lexicon, it is impossible for a child to become a fluent reader at their grade level. I have detailed this process starting from the first blog mentioned above; the entire series can be viewed here. 


Sadly, I have met too many children whose ability to decode a text has passed for fluency. They move from word to word decoding as they go. This is not fluency. Fluency includes accuracy, speed, understanding, and prosody, and I shall detail more about these in my next blog. Here, I would like to say a little about speed. 

Fluency Tweetable

When a child is able to immediately and instantly recognize a word, it is a “sight word.” They no longer need to decode it and therefore the word is read automatically. When they are able to do this with most words they read in connected text, fluency is developed. Sight word development is the single biggest factor that influences a child’s reading fluency. This is the big takeaway from David Kilpatrick’s books “Equipped for Reading Success” and “Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. 


In light of this scientific evidence, I have moved my focus on speed away from timing a student’s speed of reading. Now, other than in an initial assessment of a child’s reading, where their reading is timed, I just listen carefully to see if a student is instantly recognizing most of the words in connected text, or whether they are actually still decoding them. I have a feeling that fluency programs which regularly time a student’s speed of reading can give them the impression that reading quickly is the desired goal, but this is not the same as reading fluently. In fact, I have a feeling that they may actually promote guessing and other habits seen in poor readers, as the child speeds through the text trying to beat their previous time. 


You may be asking, “How do I know if a word a student reads is not in a student’s sight vocabulary?”


David Kilpatrick lists a number of indicators in his book, “Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties.” I’ve quote from his list, below. He does tell us they aren’t 100% reliable, but they can provide us with a good general idea that a word is part of a child’s sight vocabulary, or if they are being phonetically decoded or simply guessed. 


1. The child can get the word correct in context, but not isolation. 

2. The child pronounces a particular word inconsistently.

3. It takes the child a second or longer to begin a response to the word.

4. The child pronounces the word slowly. 

5. The child self-corrects. 

6. The child pauses during the correct pronunciation of the word.

7. The child puts the stress/accent on the wrong syllable. 

8. The child pronounces the word with at least one unusual sounding vowel or consonant, different from how the child would say the word orally. 


I shall end with David Kilpatrick’s definition of a sight word: 


“A word is in the student’s sight word vocabulary when the word is consistently pronounced correctly, instantly, and effortlessly, without benefit of context.”


As we can see, fluency is, in David’s words, “largely a byproduct of the size of a student’s sight vocabulary.” In fact, having assessed a child’s ability to read words out of context, I have a good idea about whether they will experience fluency issues when reading connected text at a particular grade level. However, there are other factors that affect fluency, such as Rapid Automatic Naming (RAN), reading experience and understanding, and prosody. I will discuss each of these briefly in my next blog. Subsequent blogs will cover them in more depth. 


For further ideas and training to develop a child’s sight word vocabulary, please check out the Orton-Gillingham Online Academy Website.


For Further Reading:


1. “Equipped for Reading Success:” A Comprehensive, Step-by-Step Program for Developing Phonemic Awareness and Fluent Word Recognition. David A. Kilpatrick, 2016. Published by Casey & Kirsch.

2. “Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties.” David A. Kilpatrick, 2015. Published by John Wiley & Sons




Lorna Wooldridge is a dyslexia specialist tutor with over twenty-five years of experience and qualifications in the field of learning differences, from both the UK and USA. Lorna has a unique perspective on this condition as she has dyslexia, and her passion is to serve this community in any way she can.

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