Make Tricky Sight Words Sticky - Really Great Reading Blog

How Many Sight Words Do You Have in Your Orthographic Lexicon or Sight Word Memory?

Did you know that literate adults have a library of 30,000 to 70,000 words they can read automatically, accurately, and effortlessly? These words are considered “sight words” because we instantly recognize them by sight. This library of sight words is called your "orthographic lexicon" or "sight word memory."

What does it take for a word to get anchored in our "orthographic lexicon" or “sight word memory?" Why is it easier for some students to recognize words instantly while other students struggle significantly more? Are there instructional methods that can have a greater impact than others? How many sight words should we teach our students?

Read our blog below and join us for our Science of Reading Virtual Workshop to learn all about the science behind how we anchor sight words into our orthographic lexicon. Additionally, learn how to access our free resource Heart Word Magic and help your students make tricky high-frequency words sticky.

How to Make Sight Words Sticky & Heart Word Magic!

You may have noticed we’ve used the term “sight word” differently from how it is used in many classrooms. Many educators use the terms “sight words” and “high-frequency words” interchangeably. In this series, we will be careful to differentiate between these two terms, so let’s start with a few key definitions:

What Are Sight Words?

These are any words that we decode quickly and effortlessly. Sight words are not just words like to, from, the, and is; they can also be words like majestic, subtropical, and encyclopedia. We can typically read these familiar words in less than .20/second or 200 milliseconds without any conscious effort. This effortless retrieval of words allows literate adults to read 300 words a minute, faster than we can comprehend speech (Farrall, 2018).

What Is Sight Word Memory or Orthographic Lexicon?

This is the whole library of words that a person can read effortlessly. Everyone’s sight word memory or orthographic lexicon is different. Many doctors can read words like paresthesia, fasciculation, and diaphragmatic effortlessly, while people not in the medical community cannot. Read the following paragraph below. Were you able to read paresthesia, fasciculation, and diaphragmatic effortlessly? Perhaps you can't, but doctors probably can. That’s because doctors have decoded them successfully several times, thus anchoring them into their sight word memory. In fact, the primary goal of decoding is to build words into our sight word memory or orthographic lexicon.

*Paresthesia is that tingling feeling you get when your hand or foot “falls asleep” and then starts to wake back up. Fasciculation is a tiny twitch you sometimes feel under your skin. Diaphragmatic describes something that relates to your diaphragm; a synchronous diaphragmatic flutter, for example, is a fancy word for a hiccup! (Okrent, 2017)

What Are High-Frequency Words? 

These words are the most common words in print. The Dolch and Fry are commonly used high-frequency word lists. In education, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on getting students to recognize high-frequency words automatically and for good reason.  In her book Uncovering the Logic of English, Denise Eide (2012) reports that “…according to some counts, the 100 most frequently used words make up 50% of all that we read and write.” At Really Great Reading, we like to call these words Heart Words because we want students to know them “by heart.”

Heart Words can be categorized into two groups – Regularly Spelled and Irregularly Spelled.

  • What Are Regularly Spelled Heart Words? Words that can be decoded using common phonics knowledge and letter-sound relationships (decodable words). These are words like and, it, in, and but. Notice that in each of these words, the consonant and vowel letters make the sounds that we expect. We can call these regularly spelled high-frequency words Simple Heart Words.

  • What Are Irregularly Spelled Heart Words? Words that deviate from common phonics patterns or familiar letter-sound relationships (non-decodable words). These are words like from, what, give, and do. Each of these words has at least one letter that spells a sound we do not typically expect it to spell. When words are irregularly spelled, research suggests that they are harder to anchor into our sight word memory. Let’s call these Tricky Heart Words.

How Do Heart Words Become Sight Words in Our Orthographic Lexicon?

Getting students to instantly recognize Heart Words, whether regularly spelled or irregularly spelled, is a common focus in primary grades. How educators anchor these words into a child’s memory varies. The most common technique is simply rote memorization through multiple exposures to the whole word, essentially practicing the word many times until it sticks. Research suggests, however, that there may be more productive techniques. 

In his book Equipped for Reading Success (2016), Dr. David Kilpatrick describes how we permanently store words in our sight word memory. He calls this process Orthographic Mapping. When a word is sufficiently “mapped,” it can be retrieved effortlessly. He explains, “To be good orthographic mappers, children need to develop three skills: 1) automatic letter-sound associations, 2) highly proficient phoneme awareness, and 3) word study” (p.41). In essence, word study is the unconscious or conscious process of connecting the phonemes (sounds) to the written form of the word (Kilpatrick, 2016). Kilpatrick continues, “The word-study aspect of mapping is the superglue that anchors words into permanent memory” (p. 41).

When trying to teach our kids to read and spell Heart Words by rote memorization, we often leave out word study! We forget about helping students see the connections between the letters and sounds, even though Kilpatrick (2015) tells us that “the vast majority of irregular words have only a single irregular letter-sound relationship” (p. 105), making the letter-sound relationships quite useful for learning a word. This makes word study a much more powerful tool than “flashcard rote memorization.”

Rote memorization relies on a sufficient number (and “sufficient” can vary greatly from student to student) of pictorial imprints to trigger a word’s phonological representation (the actual spoken word). This rote memorization approach is not much different from having a child look at the shape of a state and trying to remember if it is Missouri or Arkansas. But we know from Kilpatrick and others that storing words in our sight word memory should include phonics and phonemic awareness. Involving word study will help many of our students.



A Free Resource! Heart Word Magic

In our constant effort to bridge the gap between reading research and teacher practice, Really Great Reading has developed a tool called Heart Word Magic to help engage students in word study so that they see the predictable phonological relationships in Tricky Heart Words (irregular high-frequency words) and thus help anchor them in students’ sight word memory.  Heart Word Magic uses animations and practice techniques to make it clear to students that what they know about the alphabetic principle doesn’t completely disappear in Tricky Heart Words. The same skills students use for decoding are also helpful in learning to read and spell these non-decodable words. Heart Word Magic will help to “make the tricky sticky” for our students.

See our growing library of Heart Word Magic animations>>

Heart Word Magic - Sight Word Strategies


Free Student Practice Activities

After showing your students the Heart Word Magic animations, try these fun, hands-on activities with your students as a next step. 

Highlight the Tricky to Make It Sticky: An easy way to help students focus on and remember the parts of Tricky Heart Words they need to remember by heart is to simply have students highlight the part of the word that is “tricky” (the phonologically irregular part), such as the a in what.

Visit our Heart Word Magic page and scroll down to see more Free Student Activities>> 

Fast Facts – From Literacy Experts

It may seem counterintuitive that word study and predictable phoneme-grapheme relationships should play a large role in how we help students remember irregular Heart Words. Take a moment to consider what Kilpatrick (2015) points out about most irregular words though: “The vast majority of irregular words have only a single irregular letter-sound relationship” (p. 105). Consider words like to, do, from, what, and want. Not only are all but one of the letter-sound relationships in these words predictable, but knowledge of the unpredictable parts will help students later in their decoding careers. To say it another way, it’s not like we look at the word from and say “glorb.” Our phoneme-grapheme knowledge gets us most of the way there with these Tricky Heart Words—and Heart Word Magic can get us the rest of the way, helping us remember that the o in from spells short u, just like in the word of.

Words of the Week – Word Level Discovery

Orthographic Lexicon = The collection of words a person can read effortlessly. This is the term researchers use for our sight word memory.

We Love Educator Feedback & Questions

Contact us anytime. Our mission is to provide educators with the most efficient and effective tools for teaching phonemic awareness, phonics concepts, word attack skills, accurate reading, and fluency. Student outcomes are our number one goal. No one knows their students better than educators. Therefore, your thoughts, strategies, student successes, speed bumps, and feedback are held in high esteem! Send us your feedback and experiences>>


Eide, D. (2011). Uncovering the logic of English: A common-sense approach to reading, spelling, and literacy. Minneapolis: Pedia Learning.

Farrall, M. (2018, October). Understanding reading fluency: Research implications for assessment and instruction. Session presented at the Annual International Dyslexia Association’s Reading, Literacy & Learning Conference, Mashantucket, CT.

Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Kilpatrick, D. (2016). Equipped for reading success: A comprehensive step-by-step program for developing phonemic awareness and fluent word recognition. Syracuse, NY: Casey & Kirsch.

Okrent, A. (2017). 21 fancy medical terms for mundane problems. Retrieved from

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