Sight Words

Sight Words

The term "sight word" is used by educators to refer to three different concepts:

  • High frequency words

  • Phonetically irregular words

  • Familiar words in memory

Researchers use the term sight word exclusively to refer to written words firmly embedded in the memory system and automatically recognized "on sight." It does not matter if the words are high frequency, low frequency, phonetically regular or irregular.

David A. Kilpatrick

Orthographic Mapping

Orthographic mapping is connected to the development of sight recognition of familiar words. David Kilpatrick calls it the most important reading discovery that is the least known to educators.

Simply put, it is a process in the brain where the pronunciations, spellings, and meanings of words or word parts are linked together in long-term memory so they are recognized instantly on sight (Ehri, 2013).

Orthographic mapping is not developed through rote memorization of letter strings, shapes of whole words, flash card drills, or labels on objects. Rather, it involves repeated encounters with a word where the connections between the sounds, spellings, and meanings are analyzed.

Dyslexia Connection: For typically developing readers, orthographically mapping a word takes one to four exposures. For learners with dyslexia or other word recognition problems, it can take many more repetitions. David Kilpatrick points to proficiency in phoneme awareness and manipulation as the key to encouraging orthographic mapping.

Podcasts & Videos about Orthographic Mapping:

  • Podcasts coming soon

The Four-Part Processor

The Four-Part Processor, based on the Triangle Model hypothesis created by Mark Seidenberg and James McClelland in 1989, represents the underlying brain processes through which words are recognized.

There is not a single “reading area” in the brain. Rather, humans must repurpose and establish connections between several areas of the left hemisphere of the brain in order to read.

In this model:

Orthographic Processor

  • Recognizes letters, letter patterns, and word structures

Phonological Processor

  • Recognizes speech sounds and articulations

Orthographic Processor and Phonological Processor work together to determine word identity through sound/letter correspondence (phonics)

Meaning Processor

    • Confirms or questions the word’s identity

    • Activates after the pronunciation of a word is recognized

    • Uses word meanings stored in the individual’s memory

Context Processor

  • Helps determine the appropriate meaning of words within text

  • Activates when a word has several meanings

The arrows in the Four-Part Processor are bidirectional, showing that information flows back and forth between the processors during word identification.

Figure 1. Based on Seidenberg & McLellan (1989).

Dyslexia Connection : Individuals with dyslexia can have glitches in the orthographic and/or phonological processors, as well as inefficient pathways of communication between the processors.

Brain imaging techniques such as functional MRIs and magnetoencephalography have confirmed Seidenberg and McClelland's hypothesis about the brain process of word recognition, as well as illustrating the differences between a typically-developing brain and a dyslexic brain.

French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene has identified the four areas of the brain that align with the Seidenberg and McClelland’s Triangle Processor hypothesis.

Nadine Gaab from Harvard University echoes the same brain areas identified by Dehaene and also shows the pathways that connect them.

Dyslexia Connection: Numerous fMRI studies have shown the differences in brain activation between the typically-developing reader and the individual with dyslexia, as well as showing the brain remodeling that can occur with evidence-based intervention.

Magnetoencephalography shows us the activation sequence of the reading brain in real time, confirming that word recognition begins with the orthographic and phonological processors, not the meaning processor.

Figure 2. Time-lapse sequence starting at the left of the brain of someone reading a word (Amplify, 2019).

In an era when we can image the brain as an individual reads and literally see the brain at work, it is unacceptable to have children (and adults) struggle to read without the benefit of what modern neuroscience has taught us.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia 2nd Edition (2020)

Ehri's Phases of Word Reading Development

Linnea Ehri’s Phases of Word Reading Development demonstrate the path that all learners follow as they develop the lower word recognition strands of the Reading Rope. With each phase, readers demonstrate more understanding of how sounds and letters are connected to identify words. They build sight word recognition of more and more familiar words, and they use a growing awareness of word structure and morphology to quickly recognize words and their meanings.

Figure 3. Adapted from Ehri (1996) and Ehri & Snowling (2004).

Dyslexia Connection: A typically developing reader passes through the pre-alphabetic phase in pre-kindergarten or kindergarten, the partial alphabetic phase in kindergarten or first grade, the full alphabetic phase in first or second grade, and the consolidated alphabetic phases in second or third grade. Students with dyslexia often reach these milestones much later. Early intervention is essential to keeping them on track with their peers.

Podcasts & Videos About Automatic Word Recognition

Additional Resources About Automatic Word Recognition


Amplify. (2019). Science of reading: A primer (Part one). Amplify Education, Inc.

Catts, H. W., Adlof, S. M., & Weismer, S. E. (2006). Language deficits in poor comprehenders: A case for the Simple View of Reading. Journal of speech, language, and hearing research, 49(2), 278–293.

Ehri, L. C. (2013). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific studies of reading, 18(1), 5–21.

Ehri, L.C. , & Snowling, M.J. (2004). Developmental variation in word recognition. In C. A. Stone , E. R. Silliman , B. J. Ehren , & K. Apel (Eds.), Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders (pp. 433-460). New York: Guilford.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and special education, 7(1), 6–10.

Kilpatrick, D.A. (2021, January). Can older struggling readers improve their word-reading skills?. Reading League Journal. 2(1), 26.

Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties (essentials of psychological assessment). John Wiley & Sons.

Seidenberg, M. S., & McClelland, J. L. (1989). A distributed, developmental model of word recognition and naming. Psychological review, 96(4), 523–568.

Shaywitz, S. (2020). Overcoming dyslexia (2020 edition): Second edition, completely revised and updated (2nd ed.). Vintage.

Simos, P., Fletcher, J., Bergman, E., Breier, J., Foorman, B., Castillo, E., Davis, R., Fitzgerald, M., & Papanicolaou, A. (2002). Dyslexia-specific brain activation profile becomes normal following successful remedial training. Neurology, 58(8), 1203–1213.

World Innovation Summit for Education [WISE]. (2013, October 25). How the brain learns to read - Prof. Stanislas Dehaene [Video]. YouTube.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (2020, May). Wisconsin standards for English Language Arts.


Figure 1. Seidenberg, M. S., & McClelland, J. L. (1989). The Four Part Processor [Infographic]. Adapted from A distributed, developmental model of word recognition and naming. Psychological Review, 96(4), 523–568.

Figure 2. Amplify. (2019). [Infographic]. From Science of reading: A primer (Part one). Amplify Education, Inc.

Figure 3. Ehri, L.C. , & Snowling, M.J. (2004). Phases of word reading development [Infographic]. Adapted from Developmental variation in word recognition. In C. A. Stone , E. R. Silliman , B. J. Ehren , & K. Apel (Eds.), Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders (pp. 433-460). New York: Guilford.