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Sight Word Lists: Best Practices for Differentiation & Assessment

sight word lists

Planning for sight word instruction can be overwhelming. So many questions… Which sight word lists should I use? Why are there different sight words lists to begin with?!? Which one is better, Dolch or Fry? Does it even matter?!? Are sight words even that important? If you are an early literacy teacher just starting out, this can be so stressful! I mean, teaching kids is hard enough. Why do they make it even harder? Just tell me what to teach! 

Where are Sight Words in the State Standards?

Where are they? Different states have different standards. Yes, several years ago there was a push toward a common set of standards nationwide. These were not to be confused with national standards as states had the option to choose to adopt them or not. (Nevermind the substantial federal grants that were tied to early adoption of the Common Core State Standards… but that’s another story for another day…). 

Given that I live in Georgia, I’ll speak to my state’s standards

Sight word standards can be found in the Reading Foundations domain of the ELA standards in grades K-3. In Kindergarten, the standards actually spell out sight word mastery using the terms “sight words.” 

For first grade and beyond, the standards for sight words are a bit more cloaked. IT is important to realize that they are hidden within the Reading Foundations standards requiring first, second, and third graders to know irregularly spelled words for their respective grade-level.  

Now, the super interesting part here is that there is no definition provided for exactly what constitutes a sight word or irregularly spelled word for a given grade level. This is not to mention that despite what so many teachers have taught in the past, MANY sight words ARE in fact decodable! (Look for an upcoming blog post about this specifically!😉) So what are we to use? Admittedly, Dolch and Fry sight word lists are both very renowned and highly touted. 

But, which one is the right one? Which sight word list should we be using?

What are Dolch Sight Words?

Dolch sight words, trademarked by Edward William Dolch, were developed through his work in determining the most common words in children’s literature at the time. Keep in mind that this was nearing 80 years ago. The Dolch sight word lists are comprised of 220 sight words divvied out into five lists. He also had a separate list for nouns, 95 to be exact. Even though Dolch developed his lists many years ago, a majority of the words (50-75%) of words are still relevant today.

What are Fry Sight Words?

The Fry sight word lists are quite a bit more up-to-date. They were compiled in 1956, but were revised in 1980. Dr. Edward Fry examined print that we encounter most in our day-to-day lives. From his analysis, he produced a list of the most common 1,000 words. Although there is not a separate list for nouns as Dolch included, nouns are interwoven throughout Fry’s 1,000 word lists. 

What is more, you may even see the Fry sight words referred to as Fry’s Instant Word Lists. By and large, teachers and parents encounter the Fry lists most commonly separated into groups of 100. Many educational resources further break down the Fry lists into groups of 25 to make instruction and assessment more manageable. According to Dr. Fry, the first 300 Fry words make up 67% of all words most students encounter in their reading. 

What are Fry Phrases?

Of course, the ultimate goal of decoding is to recognize words without hesitation. To be sure, this is a pre-requisite for reading fluency. Reading fluency is important because if students struggle pulling words off the page, then their reading comprehension suffers. 

Without a doubt, reading fluency improves with practice. Once students can read the Fry sight words, teachers can address further fluency practice with the Fry Phrases. Even though there is an element of word recognition involved, the emphasis isn’t as much word recognition as it is in improving accuracy and speed with the most common of the high-frequency words. Actually, the Fry phrases include the first 600 Fry sight words. 

An Efficient Way to Track Sight Word List Mastery

As a newbie first grade teacher, I didn’t quite realize the vast difference in prior knowledge my kiddos would bring into the classroom. In particular, there were kids who could whip through beginning reader materials in August and there were kids who were still working on letter sounds in November. In spite of the vast levels of first-grade readiness, I had to teach all of the students how to read using decoding and word recognition skills. In reality, I needed a tool to differentiate for the many levels of progress in my classroom. Thus, the Sight Word Folder was born. 

Now, this wasn’t just any old folder. This baby had value. It had purpose. It had a place of special recognition in our room. You see, my school required all first graders to fluently read all of Fry’s first 300 sight words. This was no easy feat for many students at our rural Title I school. My kids knew I had high expectations for learning, and we were going to work hard to get there!

But, I needed a system. How in the world could I keep up with 20+ kids’ mastery of 300 very specific words? Read on to see how I tackled this challenge! 

sight word lists folder

Step 1

It was very evident that I had to get parents on board. Without their support, this task would be impossible. That is to say, kids need to read at school AND at home. Furthermore, I needed to build parents’ capacity in helping their child learn to read. For this reason, I wrote a parent letter to give them very specific directions on what our learning objective was and how they could and should help. Then, I shared ideas for families to help their child master the Fry sight word lists. With this purpose in mind, I even shared other fun ways to incorporate sight word practice that was more than using flashcards to memorize them. 

Step 2

At this point, I prepped the materials to send home with every child. I made class sets of the Fry sight word lists without reservation. Next, I hole punched the sight word lists and put them in a three-prong folder along with the parent letter (from step 1) on top. 

Teacher Tip! It’s been my experience that plastic poly folders with prongs typically hold up for the entire school year. You can label them with markers, or print labels using sticker labels. I like using the Avery 2 1/3 x 3 3/8 inch labels with their free online templates. It’s really teacher preference.

*Some teachers like to include this in the students’ take-home folders instead of a separate folder. Again, it’s up to you and what works for your classroom and your kids.

The name badge label templates are a good size for folder labels, and Avery’s Design and Print online software allows you to customize it as much or as little as you’d like. There’s no charge. Just set up your free account and choose the “print your own” option after designing your label. I printed these on Office Depot labels using Avery template 5395.

sight word folder with labels and parent letter

Step 3

The next step in prepping the sight word folders was actually for me to use for my record keeping as the teacher. I made a class recording sheet. This could look different depending on your classroom calendar. You may want to track student progress on the sight word lists by month, by list, or both.

Some teachers may need a recording sheet with the school year starting in August or September. Some places even have a school calendar that mirrors the traditional calendar with the school year beginning in January. I kept my recording sheets in my data notebook to have record of student progress throughout the year. This especially helped me in providing evidence that I used data to differentiate instruction in my reading flex groups. All of my reading flex groups were working on different Fry sight word lists.

This link will make a copy of a FREE editable teacher data notebook cover for you!

data notebook freebie

I wanted my students to take ownership in their learning. To work toward this ownership piece, my student had their own student data notebooks. Some people think of these as learning portfolios. This is where students show evidence of learning. After developing their recording sheet, each student received a copy for their data notebooks.

As students mastered each sight word list, they dated and colored the corresponding reading character and numbered circle. On this data tracking tool, the numbered circle aligned to the number of Fry sight words the students had mastered.

Step 4

I did not want my kids to memorize the lists in order. I wanted them to actually recognize and know the words (as all teachers do!). I knew that I needed to assess the students out of order. Y’all! Before I switched to this method, I had a little first grade baby who legitimately memorized the lists. He thought it was SO FUNNY to “read” the sight word lists to me with his eyes closed. You cannot make this stuff up! 🤣

Anyway… I decided to make flashcards for teacher use during assessment. This made it easy to test students on the sight words out of sequence. 

I must have organization in my life and having literally hundreds of sight words all printed on the same color cardstock would have me seriously bonkers. Color-coding is my go-to for keeping up with what’s what. I copied the different word lists on different colors of cardstock to help me differentiate among the lists.

Then, I hole punched each card and put each set of 100 on its own o-ring. 

Teacher tip! I picked this #teacherhack up from an awesome kindergarten teacher. She stored the o-rings on command hooks near her teacher table. You could also keep these near a sight word bulletin board display if you have one. This made keeping up with everything  just a little bit easier. Kids can even go get the set for you to test them!

Fry Phrases sight word lists

This is an example of my rings of Fry Phrases for sight word practice and assessment. This also shows an example of how I track student data for my own records. 

Teacher Tip! I like using a dot to mark student progress as they master lists. To me, this is a much cleaner look than check marks. I can easily see who has and has not mastered a given list. For privacy purposes, these are not my actual students’ names.

Step 5

Celebrating student success is so important, and mastering sight word lists is no exception! There are many ways to accomplish this, but a big shout-out board usually really gets kids excited about moving up. (Yes, I know that there is some hesitancy about this when it comes to your struggling learners. I always found a way to celebrate smaller success for this group.) 

One example would be using an incentive chart with stickers. For this type of recognition, I set up my classroom data display on an open bulletin board. This specific photo is from when I taught math and used incentive charts to track math fact mastery. I used something similar for sight word lists when I taught first grade. 

This is an example of a Math Fact Mastery Incentive Chart I used when I taught 4th grade.

I used the same system for sight words during some of the years that I taught 1st grade.

For the incentive chart with stars, students’ names are listed down the first column, just like the recording sheets. As students master the lists, they earn a foil star to put on their row on the chart.

math masters picture

This is a progress monitoring chart for the whole class to use.  I have also used a bulletin board display with student photos. This display was used throughout the entirety of the school year. It was a focal point for daily celebrations.  See the example below. 

For the bulletin board display, I used number headers for each list. Directly beneath the headers are the student pictures. I took these pictures on the first day of school and used them throughout the year for various purposes. The photo is of the students’ face and upper body on a plain background. The pictures were printed 2×3 inches on cardstock and laminated. The photos were attached to the bulletin board using thumbtacks. This made it very easy for the students to move their own pictures as they mastered new word lists. (Of course, in the mock-up above you will not see my students’ photos, but a collection of pictures of myself. This is for demonstration purposes only!😂)

Bulletin Board Tips

These can be printed out on white cardstock if you’re printing on a color printer, or you can print out a blackline version on colored cardstock, if you prefer.

You’ll want to staple all elements onto your board except for the student pictures. I recommend using a thumb tack for these. The tacks make moving students from one level to the next very easy!

Step 6

Get started on the initial assessment! I always liked to use an extra copy of the Fry Sight Word folder or the teacher flashcards.

If using the teacher flashcards, make two stacks as you assess students – one for sight words the student can read fluently and another for those they need to work on. You’ll need to circle these in the student’s folder.

If using the actual folders for the initial assessment, have the student read from the extra copy while you circle each phrase the student misses in their folder. 

Test until a student has missed the 5 or more sight words on a page and teacher judgement. The circled sight words indicate to parents that these are the focus sight words for their child.

I usually let my students “take” up to 5 sight words with them to the next page/list. This keeps students from being stuck on a list due to a few challenging words. I hand write these sight words in the upper right corner of the next list and they become part of that list’s assessment for that child only.

Teacher Tip! Use a sticky note to  mark the page in the folder  the student needs to work on.  The sticky note moves as the   students master new lists.

  (As pictured below with the Fry Phrase folder)

The Fry Phrases folder is best for advanced first graders or on level second graders. The phrases help students to work toward true fluent reading objectives with expression instead of just word recognition.

Kindergarten sight word list with 5 words per page.

First grade sight word list with 25 words per page.

Step 7

Do you remember when I said get your parents involved? Well, not only do you have to get them involved… you also have to keep them engaged. There’s no better way than making them personally invested in this learning project by giving class shout-outs. 

In the first couple of weeks of school, communicate the importance of daily practice at home with the folders to your students and their parents.

I liked to use Class Dojo to send a picture of the folders with a little message so families would know to look for them. I also used Class Dojo to send Shout-Outs home each time someone moved up a level.

Students received printed certificates at the 100, 300, 600 and 1,000 benchmarks along with their shout-out on Class Dojo.

Another idea is to share the photo celebration with whomever manages your school’s social media to post there also.

*Check with your school administrator if you are unsure of your school’s policy about social media, including Class Dojo. 

student shoutout on class dojo

So Many Sight Word Resources!

There are so many wonderful resources out there for teaching sight words. Reading Rockets has an excellent post about a new(ish) model for sight word instruction that includes phonics. This is so important for the reading brain! 

If you don’t have the time to make these resources for your own classroom, I’ve got you covered! Check out these sight word resources that have everything you need!

⭐ Fry Sight Word Folder – Practice & Assessment System

⭐ Fry Phrases Folder – Practice & Assessment System

⭐ Fry Sight Word & Fry Phrases BUNDLE – Practice & Assessment System

I’d love to hear how you incorporate sight word instruction and assessment into your literacy block. Let’s catch up in the comments below or on social media!

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