Ehri's Phases of Sight Word Reading

Let's talk about sight words.

In this blog, we define what this term really means to researchers and how it has been misunderstood. Then we go on to share with you one of the most respected theories on how we develop sight words—broken into phases of learning. This theory was developed by Linnea Ehri, PhD, Distinguished Professor Emerita, Educational Psychology. 

Sight words are important because the ability to develop fast and accurate word recognition is critical for fluent reading, as well as fluent spelling and fluent writing. Because our mission at Rooted in Language is to show you the best teaching strategies for developing strong readers and writers, we will also share how these best practices help children move through these phases of sight word development.

This is a long blog with a lot of data. Understanding this roadmap is a significant step toward understanding how and why to best teach literacy to your students. After reading the descriptions of the reading phases, feel free to focus your attention on the phase you think your child is in. You may also wish to listen to the companion podcast and print the free download of suggested strategies for each phase.

Many people think of sight words as the words we need to memorize because we can't sound them out. But to researchers, every word that a reader instantly recognizes is a sight word. The term "sight word" also brings to mind the flash card practice so many programs advocate. (This is not a strategy supported by the Science of Reading, as you will discover.) Because of this misunderstanding, Rooted in Language rarely uses the term "sight words," even though we constantly work on moving kids toward the goal of instant word recognition. Instead, we refer to sight words as word form memory.

There is a large body of research from many different researchers on how we become fast and accurate readers. The highly respected ones share ideas and build on each other. For simplicity, we are sharing one of these theories. This researcher's name is Dr. Linnea Ehri, and she calls her theory Phases of Sight Word Reading. Ehri's work will help you understand where your child is on their path to fluent literacy. 


Let's begin by defining a sight word:

When a young reader can see a word and seemingly recognize it in an instant, without having to sound it out, we call those words sight words. Scientists consider this term a misnomer because we are not reading by sight alone. Instead, when we read, each word's pronunciation, meaning, and grammatical structure are activated in our memory.

Our brains instantaneously connect what our eyes scan on a page to our phonological (sound), orthographic (spelling), morphological (word parts), semantic (vocabulary and meaning), and syntactic (grammar) systems.

For example, read these words:

  • adage
  • finite
  • idiom
  • diagram

Now use the word diagram in a sentence.

Whether or not you can correctly spell these words, you could likely read them easily. These words are all what educators call Tier 3 words—low frequency words that are content-specific. We likely learned the word finite in a math class and the word adage in language arts. But unless we are in a particular field of study, these words are low frequency for most of us. And yet, even years after our first exposure to these words, our brains know what they mean and what they look like. We can use the word diagram in a sentence, perhaps choosing to use it as a noun or as a verb, which are both grammatically correct choices. All you had to do was see a word, and your brain did all of that work!

Reading researchers are gaining understanding of the speed involved in fast word recognition. According to a study by Harris and Jacobson (1992), students typically acquire the following sight word estimates:

  • 94 words at the pre-primer level
  • 246 words from grade 1
  • 908 words from grade 2

But they aren't done. Researchers estimate that by grade 8, students acquire 1400-1600 plus words in a year, with a sum total of over 10,000 sight words overall. This is why Louisa Moats says: "Reading really is rocket science!"

These numbers are overwhelming to the educator and drive home our duty to teach students to recognize and use spelling patterns-by teaching phonics and word study in an explicit and systematic way. After all, by the end of Pinwheels Year 2, the average reader will be on their way to acquiring nearly a thousand sight words! Growing a sight word vocabulary is a monumental task for young readers.

How do we actually acquire fast word recognition? 

Reading researchers are also gaining understanding of the complexity involved in fast word recognition. How do we develop these so-called sight words, and what are our brains doing to make this happen? Sight words are at the heart of debates over how to teach reading and are foundational to our work at Rooted in Language. Ehri's seminal research helps answer these questions, and her quotes are from her chapter in the 2007 edition of the book, The Science of Reading, a Handbook, edited by Snowling and Hulme. 

Ehri and her fellow researchers have been studying just how exactly we read words fast and accurately-fluently comprehending as we go. What they theorize is that when we read, our brains instantaneously connect what our eyes scan on a page to our phonological system that manages sound and pronunciation, simultaneous to our orthographic region that monitors spelling, while instantly linking on our morphological knowledge of word parts, and all while immediately connecting to meaning through our semantic and syntactic (or grammar) systems. This isn't "just reading," this is what Mark Seidenberg calls "language at the speed of sight"—an amazing brain skill!

Theories regarding how children achieve reading fluency have also been developed by Chall, Frith, Seymour & Duncan, and others, spanning decades since the early 1980's. In general, researchers are honing in on the skills required and the time needed to become a competent, accurate, and fluent reader at grade level.  

And guess what makes this learning the most efficient?

Writing and spelling!

It's as though humans have scaled a mountain of research only to discover an old sage sitting at the top saying, "master writing and spelling." If you have been around Rooted in Language for more than a minute, you know that writing and spelling are keys to growing all literacy skills. Both Pinwheels and Wand include explicit phonics instruction, spelling practice, and writing in Intentional Copywork, Dictation, and Editing practice. We also include original writing—all to help children consolidate their learned skills in a meaningful context. We want each and every sub-skill to become increasingly fluent.

Most of these theories emphasize a progression from early reading to fluent reading, demonstrating a dual route to learning. Young readers begin reading using "Route 1," in which they have to activate meaning before they can say a word. Children may use visual cues, context cues, or memory because they have little alphabet knowledge; they are using what is called  "grapho-semantic connections."  New learners then progress to "Route 2," in which they use "graphophonemic connections." As children learn the alphabetic system, they use decoding to pronounce the word, and this pronunciation leads to meaning. For instance, in a study by Share (2004), Israeli third graders were able to develop sight words after only one exposure to words. This ability to read and recognize new words, making them life-long sight words, requires learning, practice, and time, usually three or more years.

While the body of theories gives great insight into learning, our focus is on the theory from researcher Linnea Ehri, PhD. Based on the research of others, as well as her own, Ehri developed her Phase Theory of Sight Word Reading to help us understand the developmental progression of literacy.  Here are Ehri's phases:

When theorists use the term phase rather than stage, it indicates that there is no clean stop and start at a given level; instead, transitions and overlapping skills occur, as you will see.

Pre Alphabetic Phase

In the Pre Alphabetic Phase, children recognize words using only visual or contextual cues. They may recognize signs on buildings, a name on a cereal box, or their own name. These children do not yet understand that letters represent sounds, but they are beginning to understand that words hold meaning.

When we translate this research into strategies for teaching literacy, we recommend the following for this stage of development:

  • Help children learn to say and write the letters in their name.
  • Help children learn to say the alphabet.
  • Encourage the understanding that words convey meaning.
  • Engage in sound hunt games in which children identify objects that start with the same sound.
  • Engage in rhyme play.
  • Sing, sing, sing.
  • Point out signs and words in their environment, but contrast this with the idea that someday they will be able to read thousands of words.

Don't confuse or refer to word guessing as reading, but rather as a sign of readiness for reading.

Transition to the Partial Alphabetic Phase

The next step is an important one. This transition phase begins once students are introduced to some letters and their sounds. They may be able to read words by forming partial connections in memory, but they struggle to write them. At first they try to memorize words using visual cues, but this breaks down after about 40 words. 

In this phase, students are learning to use sound-to-letter correspondence to decode simple words, but their knowledge is limited. Non-struggling students may make this shift quickly, after learning just a few words. 

Various studies show that learning letter names helps readers move through this phase into the alphabetic phase, as well. This fits with our knowledge that the ability to learn letter names is an important literacy skill. The non-struggling reader learns letter names easily, then has that information to help them attend to and use alphabetic information. By contrast, an inability to learn letter names is a "red flag" that a student will struggle in their literacy development. This inability further impedes their progress.

Studies show that writing also promotes shifts in phases because it helps "children [change] their reading strategy from the visual to the alphabetic. [In other words, writing] becomes alphabetic before reading does." This is why students in this phase need to learn writing and reading together, and why they will struggle to read their own writing. Fascinating!


I can remember having my children bring me pictures they drew, covered in invented spelling in which the words had only some sounds. I would say, "Tell  me what you wrote about." That way, as we looked at the pictures and talked, I could get the gist of what they set out to write; from there, I could begin to decipher their spelling.

When we translate this and a large body of research into strategies for teaching literacy, this is the phase when we begin to explicitly and systematically teach a handful of letters in the basic alphabetic code, consisting of single sound-to-letter connections and short vowel sounds, as seen in our Pinwheels Year 1 program. This is why we recommend that all older struggling learners begin with Pinwheels Year 1 material, by either modifying that program or by using strategies found in our Foundations for Teaching, Reading, Writing & Spelling online educator class. All students need to make this transition from guessing to alphabetic decoding and encoding. We recommend the following for this stage of development, as seen in our Pinwheels Year 1 program:

  • Begin to explicitly and systematically teach a handful of letters in the basic alphabetic code, consisting of single sound-to-letter connections and short vowel sounds.
  • Teach and have children practice sound blending activities for simple consonant-vowel (CV) nonwords, such as mi or ba, for vowel-consonant words and nonwords, such as it and im, and a handful of consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words, such as pet or sit.
  • Teach and have children practice sound segmenting activities for a handful of consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words.
  • Help children understand that guessing is not reading, and promote their use of letters to read words, rather than continuing to rely on context cues.
  • Have the student practice saying the alphabet and using the letter’s name during letter formation practice.
  • Have the student practice saying each letter’s sound as they write simple words.
  • Understand that children are in transition and support the time and effort they need.
  • Prioritize writing and invented spelling, as we teach in Pinwheels.
  • Understand that for many children, reading will advance more quickly than writing.
  • Understand that it takes approximately two years to master print; therefore, practice means improvement, not perfection.

Partial Alphabetic Phase

As children transition, they move into the Partial Alphabetic Phase, an important phase to understand. This phase is our goal for Pinwheels Year 1 students. These students know most letter names and can read some words out of context. They begin to understand that both a capital and lowercase letter can represent the same sound. 

While this phase requires phonemic awareness and sound tracking, children will mix up words with the same initial and final letters, ignoring the middle letters. Sight word reading using only some of a word's letters is why these students have only partial alphabet skills. 

In this phase, students are still relying on letter name cues, so short vowel knowledge is tenuous. For example, students in this stage are better able to recall the sound of /d/ because of its relation to the letter name d, but will struggle to recall the sound of w which sounds nothing like its letter name. 

The time length for this phase varies by individual, which is why we say no program is perfectly timed for every student. There are a lot of skills to master: building sound-to-letter connections (or the alphabetic code), learning letter names, gaining handwriting skills for invented spelling, strengthening sound processing for both segmenting and blending sounds, and launching a sight word vocabulary of a few words. 

Most struggling learners get stuck in the Partial Alphabetic Phase, so it is important to understand. This phase represents most of my clients. Even though this partial alphabetic phase is developmentally appropriate for the typical learner, the struggling learner continues to inaccurately read words that look alike-words that have similar initial and final letters, because they do not read across all their sounds. For example, almost every single one of my older struggling students will misread and guess at the words:  though, thought, and through

Struggling readers are usually stuck in this phase due to a number of both extrinsic and intrinsic factors. They may not have had proper systematic and explicit instruction that included phonological processing and writing work. They may not have been given enough practice and time, often because their needs are greater than what is typically expected. In addition, their particular areas of weakness may impede their ability to process and segment sounds, build automatic sound-to-letter connections, or map sounds onto words in order to build a strong sight word vocabulary. 

Recommended teaching at this phase is contained in both our Pinwheels Year 1 and Year 2 programs, as well as in our Foundations online educator training course. Not only do we continue to consistently and systematically teach sound-to-letter connections, but we fully establish and show you how to teach the following strategies:

  • Continue to explicitly and systematically teach all letters in the basic alphabetic code, expanding on sound-to-letter connections, continuing to practice short vowel sounds, and adding some consonant letter teams, such as sh, th, ch, or double letters, such as ss and ll.
  • Have children consistently practice sound blending activities for consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words that contain both single letters and consonant teams, as in the words fish or buzz, as well as for a few words with blends (CCVC) such as skip.
  • Reinforce that guessing is not reading, and promote the use of letters to read words, rather than continuing to rely on context cues.
  • Have the student practice saying the alphabet and using the letter’s name during letter formation practice, patiently allowing them the two years they need to become accurate and automatic in their handwriting skills.
  • Have the student consistently practice saying each letter’s sound as they write words to teach them to map the sounds they hear and say onto the letters they see and write. 
  • Consistently employ Intentional Copywork and eventually Dictation, to help students apply all new learning and to coordinate all their skills together. 
  • Prioritize original writing with invented spelling, so students practice the sound-to-letter attention needed to build a sight word vocabulary.
  • Teach basic editing skills to reinforce writing mechanics.
  • Begin to introduce syllables and basic suffixes so students experience reading across words for information.
  • Understand that students are working to transition to the Full Alphabetic Phase of learning. 


Transition from the Partial Alphabetic to the Full Alphabetic Phase

As we continue through Ehri's phases, remember that some students move quickly through these phases, and some move more slowly. Some struggle with each of the transitions. But the average student needs at least three years of dedicated instruction and practice, so let's keep going.

The next phase is the Transition from the Partial Alphabetic to the Full Alphabetic Phase. This phase is taking us to the goal for all readers and writers: (and I quote Ehri here) to "bond spellings fully to their pronunciations in memory" (146).

This transition requires the following skills, according to a study by Griffith and Gough (1986):

  • Phonemic awareness involving sound segmentation, blending, and substitutions
  • Exposure to print at various text levels
  • Nonword decoding, such as reading the nonsense word sneck, somethings called "cipher knowledge"
  • And sign word knowledge including the recognition of misspelled words

Other researchers identify that phonological awareness must be taught with sound-to-letter correspondences for an effective transition to the full alphabetic phase.

In a meta-analysis by Ehri, Nunes, Stahl, and Willows (2001), they found that systematic phonics instruction boosted sight word reading, decoding, and reading comprehension more than whole-word or whole-language instruction. These effects were most pronounced in kindergarten and first grade. When presented with unknown words, students with strong phonics training were less likely to guess and more likely to re-read, increasing accuracy. 

In addition, as students continue to grow and practice their sound-to-letter knowledge, they increase their sight word reading and move more quickly into the Full Alphabetic Phase. Learners in this phase are learning to read across sounds, solidifying not just the beginning and ending of words, but their middle, as well. This is the stage of the Vowel Chart development in our programs. This is why systematic phonics instruction with word study must continue, with an emphasis on the middle sounds of words. We teach good reading skills, using "read with a pencil'' strategies and encouraging self-correction. 

This transitional phase is the one I call the "slog through phonics." It is so easy to tell ourselves: my reader is good enough, and they can just learn more by reading on their own. I remember my son resisted working through the slog; he wanted to be left alone and interpreted our practice as unnecessary, at times even insulting his skill level. Explain why we always need more practice and persevere. We know how much further they can go, even when they don't! We need to keep working to improve students' reading skills, having them read aloud every day. Students must continually force their brains to pronounce words as they read aloud, solidifying the connections between pronunciation, spelling, word knowledge, and memory.

For strategies at this phase, you find what is taught in our Pinwheels Year 2 program, in some of Wand, and in our online classes–most specifically, Foundations for Teaching Reading, Writing & Spelling and the LA Binder class. Remember: 

  • Continue to explicitly and systematically teach the more advanced alphabetic code, including common spelling patterns such as dge and tch.
  • Continue to have the student build a Vowel Chart as they learn to read and spell words with new vowel and vowel team spelling patterns. 
  • Layer in word study as the student builds an Affix Chart, learns to recognize, read, and spell prefixes and suffixes, and practices spelling rules. 
  • Have the student practice reading and writing words with 2-3 syllables, helping them read across syllables, especially syllables in the middle of words, and to be flexible with their pronunciation to bond words they see and write to their pronunciation knowledge. 
  • Continue and expand the practices of Intentional Copywork, Dictation, and Editing, so students learn to consolidate all their skills, growing in writing fluency.
  • Begin formal spelling practice, helping students match the sounds they hear and say to the letters they see and write, to improve their alphabetic knowledge and their sight word development.
  • Expand each student’s original writing skills, encouraging their invented spelling along with sight word spelling.
  • Expand gentle editing skills that are developmentally appropriate, task dependent, and teach from a level of success.

Spelling is the canary in the coal mine for many literacy weaknesses, especially dyslexia and dysgraphia. Many children at this stage of literacy struggle with English spelling. It is a difficult skill that takes decades to master. If your child struggles with spelling, even for their developmental level, it may be that they have not yet mastered the sound-to-letter and syllable connections needed. They may be unable to transition to the next phase without a great deal of strategic teaching, specific practice, patience, and time.

Full Alphabetic Phase

The slog is over! We are finally in the Full Alphabetic Phase. This is the phase we are all hoping for! These students are able to decode new words and rapidly grow their sight word vocabularies. Only "one or a few reading experiences is sufficient to convert unfamiliar words to familiar sight words" (148) — familiar enough to read easily, but not necessarily to spell well. Our own experience tells us that there are words we can easily read but may still struggle to spell. 

Full knowledge of sound-to-letter correspondences provides the mnemonic system needed to link spelling to pronunciation. And this is not new information, but is based on over four decades of converging evidence that has been peer reviewed and replicated.

In fact, this research supports our "say sounds as you write" strategy because it helps children glue together what they see, know, say, and write about words.

As Ehri explains, "the exceptional letters may be flagged in memory as silent, or remembered as extra letters, or given a spelling pronunciation." This research informs the spelling process RIL teaches: help kids track the sounds they say and hear and map them on to the letters they see and write. Have students analyze which letters are expected, and which few are not. 

Sight word learning for both reading and spelling is not only faster in the Full Alphabetic Phase, but sight words are more accurate than at prior phases because spelling is more fully secured in memory. This makes sense: fully knowing what to expect in spelling decreases a student's memory demand. Students at the Full Alphabetic Phase attend to and remember middle letters, which are typically vowels. If I fully know the long o sound is commonly spelled with an o, oe, o-e broken, oa, and ow, I can easily assimilate that the word though is spelled with an unexpected pattern.

At this phase of development, students are beyond learning to read and are now reading to learn. It is assumed that the typical reader achieves this level by 4th grade. Reading fosters vocabulary growth, and these students have the word-level skills and fluency to support comprehension. Literacy involves the entire curriculum, and teaching is focused on comprehension.

Teaching is also focused on spelling, which continues to require good instruction in decoding complex words with multiple syllables and affixes. Decoding work is the means for mapping sounds to letters, which continues to build sight word learning and support spelling.

When I translate this and additional research into strategies for teaching at this level, you find what is represented in our online classes—most specifically, Foundations, Grammar & Mechanics, Supported Writing & Editing, and Reading Accuracy, Fluency, & Comprehension. At this level, students primarily reference, rather than build, their Vowel Chart. 

One recommendation at this phase is to expand students' original writing skills, relying on sight word spelling, but continuing invented spelling only when needed to complete a thought. We use students' writing to solidify concepts, take notes, and practice sentence-level grammar skills.

Here are the recommended teaching principles for this stage of development:

  • Continue to explicitly teach students to attend to mapping sounds to letters as they increase their spelling knowledge.
  • Continue ongoing word study, referencing their Affix Chart, as they build vocabulary across the curriculum.
  • Read in all areas of the curriculum so students read multisyllable words,  being flexible with their pronunciation to connect the words they see and write to their pronunciation knowledge. 
  • Continue and expand the practices of Intentional Copywork, Dictation, and Editing, so students learn to consolidate all their new spelling and vocabulary skills, growing in writing fluency.
  • Continue formal spelling practice, helping students analyze words for their sounds, word parts, grammatical structure, and meaning.
  • Expand each student’s original writing skills, encouraging their invented spelling along with sight word spelling.
  • Write in all areas of the curriculum to help students solidify concepts, take notes, and practice sentence-level grammar skills.
  • Expand on gentle editing skills that are developmentally appropriate, task dependent, and teach from a level of success.
  • Continue to build LA Binder pages to support writing, grammar, and deep reading practices.

Now, you might be wondering, are we there yet? Well, not quite. There is a reason researchers measure 6th vs. 9th vs. 12th grade reading and spelling skills. Students have one more phase to master!

Consolidated Alphabetic Phase

This phase occurs during the Full Alphabetic Phase, but is an important part of literacy development. At this phase, readers and writers develop what is called grapho-phonemic units—knowledge of word parts (morphology), but also chunks of spelling patterns. Consolidating a series of sounds and letters into units decreases the memory load, which further increases sight word development and accurate spelling. 

So what are these units? They can be word parts including the morphemes of prefixes, suffixes, and base words. For example, students may easily consolidate the suffix -ment or the base word plode but need explicit practice to consolidate the stable syllables of tion/sion, ture, or tious/cious. 

Units can also be spelling patterns that tend to be held in vowel chunks. Linguists call these rime patterns: units of sound from the vowel to the end of the syllable. Common rime patterns children practice include old, ank, ight, ict, etc.

Spelling pattern knowledge fosters sight word reading and is influenced more by the number of words with the pattern than by the frequency of each word. For example, we see the suffix -ish frequently, so we can easily read an infrequent word, such as diminish. Likewise, we see the rime pattern ict frequently, so we can easily read an infrequent word such as edict. Some researchers call this "unitizing" (152), because our brains find patterns and create spelling units.

 At Rooted in Language, we emphasize syllable work fairly early in our teaching. We want readers and writers to develop their own internal vowel chart, affix chart, and rime index. Remember, readers develop expectations about the way words will be spelled, and when they see deviations, they more easily learn the alternative spelling for the sounds that are represented.  

In syllable work, when a student hears /shee-us/ in the word delicious and ambitious, they now know those words likely end in the tious or cious spelling pattern.

In summary, these are Ehri's phases of sight word development—from preschool through college: the Pre Alphabetic Phase, transitioning to the Partial Alphabetic Phase, then the Full and Consolidated Alphabetic Phases. We all move through these phases in which we start by decoding words in order to comprehend them, but eventually become fluent readers who can simultaneously comprehend words as soon as we see them on the page.

The concept of a "sight word" has been deepening for decades. Researchers now know that reading "at the speed of sight" is a developmental process that takes explicit instruction and epic practice. Far more practice than most people realize. But then, once we know a word, we cannot unknow it! As Ehri states: "visual codes become connected to phonological codes, which in turn activate semantic codes in memory" (151). All these incredible skills, consolidated for accuracy, fluency, and efficiency.

This is the recipe for success for the struggling learner: explicit instruction and epic practice over many years. Struggling learners are often stuck in the Partial Alphabetic Phase. Decoding takes longer, sight word reading is suppressed, consolidation of word parts and spelling patterns is lacking. The result is weak reading accuracy and fluency. Struggling readers rely on surrounding text, their oral vocabulary, and their background knowledge to help them predict words based on their boundary letters. For these students, reading is exhausting work that is only mitigated by working even harder to push through to higher reading levels. That is why we, their teachers, need to work harder on their behalf, showing struggling learners that progress is fun and success is empowering.

~ Rita

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