Beginning readers need to learn to identify the sounds that letters and phonemes make so they can sound out new words. For the beginning reader, this is done through explicit and direct instruction in phonics. Being able to decode a word is a skill that even adult readers use when they come across a new word while reading so children definitely have to have a good grasp of the sounds that various letters and letter combinations. While a solid understanding of phonics is essential, it is not enough since decoding requires a significant amount of mental energy. Just as learning the multiplication tables is a foundational skill for young children in math, developing a large number of words that children can recognize “by sight” without having to stop and sound them out is essential for fluent reading. For this reason, as children are continuing to expand their phonemic awareness and phonics skills, it is also important that they practice the common sight words that they will encounter in their reading.
Edward Dolch and Edward Fry both identified word lists of the most commonly found words that elementary students would encounter in their readings. While some of the words on these lists can be decoded using normal phonic skills, others are irregular or have unique pronunciations and should simply be memorized. Having students practice these words until they can easily identify them without having to think about them can greatly increase a child’s reading fluency. When children read more fluently, they can devote more cognitive energy to comprehension and thus they enjoy reading more. Personally, I prefer to use the Dolch words with primary readers and the Fry words with struggling upper grade readers but either list can be used to help children expand their recognition of sight words.