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The Sight Word Vocabulary Development of Year 1 Children

John Greenup
This longitudinal study looked at the sight word development of young children across their first year of schooling. The development is compared to measures of reading and spelling ability taken near the end of the children's second year at school. Estimates are made of what might be considered a normal sight word vocabulary for children at the middle and end of Year 1. Also included is an analysis of the sight words acquired which was used to produce a pedagogical list of words that the children in this study found easiest to learn.


The major purpose of this research was to document the sight word vocabulary of Year 1 children. The concept of a sight word vocabulary is different to that of a 'reading vocabulary' with the latter having been examined by many authors including White, Slater and Graves (1990) who defined a reading vocabulary as 'the number of printed words that are both decoded and understood' (p.281). The literature on reading development contains many similar terms such as 'word identification' (Hargis, Terhaar-Yonkers, Williams and Reed, 1988), 'word decoding' (Juel, Griffith and Gough, 1986), and 'word recognition (Adams and Huggins, 1985). To clarify the concepts held by this author, the following definitions are given.

'Word identification' is a broad term and involves the use of any cues to determine a word.

'Word decoding' is more specific and involves the application of letter sound knowledge to determine a word.

'Word recognition' is a step up from decoding and requires a level of mastery that permits speed and automaticity (LaBerge and Samuels, 1974). Recognition may occur via either a visual memory link or some superfast automatic decoding process but the key point is the speed. Words are recognised immediately on sight, hence the use of the term 'sight words' for words determined in this fashion.

Sight Word Vocabulary Development

Children's sight word vocabularies will be smaller than their reading vocabularies because the former will not include those words that the child can 'sound out' or recall with the help of the context. White, Graves and Slater reported reading vocabularies for children at the end of Grade 1 in three American schools to be approximately 2,00~5,000 words. These results were based on their subject's knowledge of 28 selected words. Sartain (1981) reported a study which found that children's reading vocabularies at the end of first grade ranged from three words to more than 5,000 words. No studies were located which were confined to children's sight word vocabularies.

The lack of research specifically monitoring sight word development is probably due to the dominance, until recently, of either 'phonic' or 'look and say' philosophies. From the phonic stance such a project would be unnecessary because the children, once taught the key, could unlock a multitude of words. From a look and say stance such a project would also be unnecessary because the structured word teaching which goes with such a philosophy directly controls sight word development, i.e. the children learn the words they are taught and that are in the controlled readers.

With the recent swing in reading instruction to more individual freedom and independent reading from a wide range of unstructured literature, a need now exists to identify some normal range for children's sight word vocabulary development. The whole language reading approach which has dominated reading instruction in recent years, often coupled with multi-age classrooms, allows children to develop reading skills at their own rate. However, many teachers of young children would appreciate some means of determining whether a beginning reader's progress is inside a normal range. Traditional standardised tests that were developed and normed under a different set of educational beliefs and practices may not be appropriate. However, something as fundamental as a check of overall sight vocabulary should have universal application. ,

There are other teachers of reading at the moment who would not welcome this interest in isolated word knowledge. McKenna, Robinson and Miller (1990) discussed this conflict between the whole language perspective and the traditional perspective. They reported that testing of specific decontextualised skills such as the recognition of isolated words is a particular source of irritation for whole language teachers because such assessment does not require students to demonstrate the full range of their ability. Whole language teachers have a different construct of what should be assessed which includes areas such as student motivation, self efficacy, creativity and general problem solving (Mosenthal, 1989). However, as Adams (1990) explains, while reading is a whole complex system of skills and knowledge 'unless the processes involved in individual word recognition operate properly, nothing else in the system can either.' (p.3).

Sight Word Vocabulary Lists

As noted by Gunderson (1984), there are two main types of word lists: large corpus word lists and pedagogical word lists. The first is based on word frequencies as they occur in a wide range of texts. An example of this type is the list developed by Carroll, Davis and Richman (1971). They analysed 10,000 500-word samples from 1,045 texts used by students from Grades 3 through 9 to produce a list of 86,741 words arranged both alphabetically and by rank. Another example is the list produced by Sartain of the most frequent 500 words from his sample of 8,269,968 entries drawn from texts used by students from Grades 1 through 6. The second type of list, the pedagogical ones, includes words that teachers try to ensure their students know so as to assist their reading development. These high frequency words represent a large portion of the vocabulary in texts and obviously their immediate recognition would assist the flow of reading. The classic example of this type is the Dolch (1936) list of 220 words. More recently there is Hillerich (1974) with 240 Starter Words and Holdaway (1980) with 406 Basic Sight Words. Gunderson also produced a list, but rather than referring to high frequency words in texts, he looked at student's own spoken vocabularies to arrive at his 242 Inner-City Words which he found just as useful as the other lists. Gunderson explained that 'as far as pedagogical lists are concerned, they all represent significant portions of the cumulative vocabulary in initial reading texts, somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent. So any major pedagogical list will serve as equally as well.'(p.267).

In the development of the above lists there seems to have been no consideration given as to how easily children would learn to recognise the words. If we are wanting to make reading an enjoyable process for students and if we were wanting to make their early efforts successf ul, pedagogical lists should contain words that will be easily acquired as sight words. Of course frequency of occurrence is a major factor in word recognition. It is widely reported that words of higher frequency are recognised more rapidly than non-frequent words (Seidenberg et al, 1984; Ehri and Wilce, 1983). So for this reason the above lists should be reasonably easy. However, there are other factors as well as frequency of exposure that can influence the ease of acquisition. One of these is the level of imagery word, such as 'of' (Hargis Terhaar-Yonkers, Williams and Reed, 1988). There are also perceptual features of words that may set them apart from others. Teachers have long known that the two 'eyes' in the middle of 'look' make it an easily acquired word. There may also be relationships between letters such as bigram troughs (Rapp, 1992) that children's orthographic processors learn to recognise so that the presence of known subword units in new words could assist their acquisition as sight words. Due to these factors, it would seem timely to actually research which sight words children acquire first and, logically, most easily.

Research Questions

To address the issues raised in the preceding sections, two research questions were posed.

Question 1:What is the range of sight vocabulary development that can be considered normal at the middle and end of Year 1?
Question 2:Which words seem to be acquired most easily as sight words by the children?



The 18 children, nine boys and nine girls, in this study were drawn from one class of Year 1 children in a large school in a middle class Brisbane suburb. The sample consists of all that class whose parents gave permission for them to participate. The mean age of the sample at the beginning of Year 1 was five years and nine months. One boy's results have been excluded from the data analysed for Question 1 because it was discovered that he was repeating Year 1 from another school and as such his measured performance did not result from his first year of schooling. Another boy and girl had left the school and could not be traced for the reading and spelling measures in Year 2. The data from these three students was, however, included in the analysis for Question 2.

The teacher involved had an eclectic approach to reading instruction using a combination of whole language methods with some traditional skills emphasis.

Measures and Procedure

Sight word list

A list of 417 words was developed to include the words that would most likely be the first to enter the subject's sight word vocabulary. Many sources were consulted to develop the list, including Holdaway's Basic Sight Words, Hillerich's Starter Words, the New Zealand Council for Educational Research's Alphabetical Spelling List (NZCER, 1968), the Dolch List and the Dolch Commonest Nouns, Sartain's Comprehensive Reading Vocabulary, the American Heritage Word Frequency Book (Carroll, Davies and Richman, 1971), and the vocabulary in level one of the Story Box reading scheme, which is the main scheme used in the subjects' classroom. Most word lists emphasise irregular sounded words, so to even this out, some high frequency regular words were selected for inclusion as well. Also included are the following words that might have been acquired through exposure to environmental print: Lego, Brisbane, Coca Cola, Give Way, McDonald's, Westpac, Rochedale, Sesame Street, Australia and Hungry Jacks. 'Jesus' and 'God' were included due to some of the families of the subjects being active in fundamental Christian groups. Some regularly inflected forms and their base words were also included in the list such as 'ask' and 'asked', 'boy' and boys', and 'go', 'goes' and 'going'.

Children were asked to read through the list (organised roughly into increasing difficulty) until they were unlikely to give any more correct responses. Only one word at a time was exposed to a child, with the other words being masked. As this process took some time with each subject, the sessions were ended when a subject appeared to be losing concentration and continued from that point on a later day.

The list was tested at three stages during the first grade year, in February, June and November. For a word to be regarded as part of a child's sight word vocabulary, the correct response had to be given within two seconds. Responses after that time were recorded, as were any signs of sounding out, but such words were not counted as sight words. If there was no response within ten seconds the next word was shown.

Reading comprehension

The St Lucia Reading Comprehension Test (Elkins and Andrews, 1974), a cloze test, was administered to the subjects in a class group in October of their second year at school.


The Schonell Spelling Test (Schonell, 1965) was administered to the subjects in a class group in October of their second year at school.


Question 1

Table 1 summarises the main features of the data relevant to this question. Students numbered 1-9 are boys while 10-18 are girls. The reading comprehension and spelling measures are the raw scores of the tests. Converting the mean of the student's results on these two measures via the age norms for each test gives a mean reading age of seven years, three months and a mean spelling age for both the boys and the girls of seven years, seven months. The mean of their actual ages at the time was seven years, five months. On the basis of these results the sample included in the study, although only small in size, does seem to be a typical selection.

Table 1: Summary Statistics of Measures Taken

Student Words
101414922 31
612212923 33
701717022 32
92201198 25
1036127028 29
1125136626 31
1212620718 27
130206913 24
1447031133 42
1601415815 32
1752121519 29
180141019 22
Mean1.2725.00160.4016.67 27.53
SEM0.425.1225.422.40 1.72

The mean number of words recognised as sight words in November of the first year at school was 160. If one considers a standard deviation either side of this as a normal range then sight word vocabularies of between 60 and 260 words could be considered as the average range. However, there may be words that students knew that were not included on the list and near the end of a session subject fatigue may have been a factor so it would be advisable to err on the side of caution. It must also be remembered that individuals develop at different rates and that a slower rate is not necessarily an indication of a problem. In the light of these factors a reasonable estimate for the average range of sight words recognised at the end of Year 1 would be 50-300 words.

Similarly, a reasonable estimate for the average range of sight words recognised in the middle of Year 1 would be 5-50 words.

The correlations existing between the measures used in this study are shown in Table 2. The strong correlation between the sight words known in November and the reading comprehension measure lends support to the belief that as more words are recognised automatically, more cognitive resources are available to process higher order processes such as comprehension.

Table 2: Matrix of Pearson's rho Correlation Coefficients with p-values

(p = 0.078)
(p = 0 006)
(p = 0.002)
(p = 0.000)

(p = 0.056)
(p = 0.001)
(p = 0.000)

(p = 0.009)
(p = 0.000)

(p = 0.006)


Question 2

To determine the words that the students in this study found the easiest as sight words, the student's correct responses for each word were totalled for both the June and the November tests. A numerical index was then calculated for each word based on these totals. The whole number portion of the index refers to the number of students correctly recognising the word in the November test. The decimal portion refers to the number of students correctly recognising the word in the June test as follows: .1 = 1 student; .9 = 9 students; .91 = 10 students; .99 = 18 students. The words were then ranked according to this index in decreasing order as shown in Table 3.

This list of the most easily acquired words could be used by teachers to give assistance to students who are not developing a sight vocabulary at an acceptable rate. Words that occur both on this list and in whatever reading material the student is using should be selected as the basis for additional activities designed to develop recognition ability. It seems logical to expect that these words should be the easiest for the student to acquire to expand their sight word vocabulary. As a general rule, reading teachers try to provide successful learning experiences for students. The list of the 100 most easily acquired words may be a useful tool for reading teachers trying to achieve this goal.

Table 3: Most Easily Acquired Words

17.8are1914.2fish4412.1they6910.2an94< /td>


Adams, M.J. (1990) Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Adams, M.J. & Huggins, AW.F. (1985) 'The growth of children's sight vocabularies: A quick test with educational implications'. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 268-281.

Carroll, J.B., Davis, P. & Richman, B. (1971) The American Heritage Word Frequency Book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Dolch, E.W. (1936) 'A basic sight vocabulary'. Elementary School Journal, 36, 456-460.

Ehri, L.C. & Wilce, L.S. (1983) 'Development of word identification speed in skilled and less skilled beginning readers'. Journal of Educational Psychology, 75(1), 3-18.

Elkins, J. & Andrews, R.J. (1974) St Lucia Reading Comprehension Test. Brisbane: Teaching and Testing Resources.

Gunderson, L. (1984) 'One last word list'. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 30(4), 259-269.

Hargis, C.H., Terhaar-Yonkers, M., Williams, P.C. & Reed, M.T. (1988) 'Repetition requirements for word recognition'. Journal of Reading Development, 31, 320-327.

Hillerich, R.L. (1974) 'Word lists - getting it all together'. The Reading Teacher, 27(4), 353-360.

Holdaway, D. (1980) Independence in Reading: A Handbook on Individualized Procedures. 2nd Ed. Gosford NSW: Ashton Scholastic.

Juel, C., Griffith, P.L. & Gough, P.B. (1986) 'Acquisition of literacy: A longitudinal study of children in first and second grade'. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(4), 243-255.

LaBerge, D. & Samuels, S.J. (1974) 'Toward a theory of automatic information processing in reading'. Cognitive Psychology, 6, 293-323.

McKenna, M., Robinson, R. & Miller, J. (1990) 'Whole language: A research agenda for the nineties'. Educational Researcher, 19(8), 3-6.

Mosenthal, P.B. (1989) 'The whole language approach: Teachers between a rock and a hard place'. The Reading Teacher, 42(8), 628-629.

New Zealand Council for Educational Research (1968) NZCER Alphabetical Spelling List. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Rapp, B.C. (1992) 'The nature of sublexical orthographic organization: The bigram trough hypothesis examined'. Journal of Memory and Language, 31, 33-53.

Sartain, H.W. (1981) Frequency Count of English Words Appearing in Books Read at Elementary Schools. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the European Conference on Reading, Finland, August 5, 1981. (ED216 326)

Schonell, F.J. (1965) Schonell Spelling Test. Edinburgh, Scotland: Oliver & Boyd.

Seidenberg, M.S., Waters, G.S., Barnes, M.A. & Tanenhause, M.K. (1984) 'When does irregular spelling or pronunciation influence word recognition?' Journal of Verbal Learning, 23, 383-404.

White, T.G., Slater, W.H. & Graves, M.G. (1990) 'Growth of Reading Vocabulary in Diverse Elementary Schools: Decoding and word meaning'. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(2), 281-290.

Please cite as: Greenup, J. (1992). The Sight Word Vocabulary Development of Year 1 Children. Queensland Researcher, 8(3), 19-28. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr8/greenup.html

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Created 6 June 2006. Last revision: 6 June 2006.
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