Question: My third-grader has tested below basic on his latest standardized reading test. I've seen a copy of the Dolch List and know for a fact that he has learned every word on it, including the ones in the Third Grade column. What I want to know is why isn't he reading at Third Grade level?

The Dolch List of Sight Words is a list of 220 high-frequency English words. Although the list is often arranged under the headings Pre-primer, Primer, Grade One, Grade Two, and Grade Three, children who don't master all 220 by the end of First Grade will experience reading difficulties as they proceed through the grades.

The Dolch List Represents a Tiny Portion of Basic Vocabulary

The Dolch List was published by E. W. Dolch in 1936. The list is made up of service words like verbs, adjectives, and prepositions, but no nouns. These are "starter" words. Children K-3 must be able to read thousands of words if they are to enter fourth grade reading well enough to do the work.

A common misconception about the list is that it's called a sight word list because the words on it cannot be sounded out phonetically and therefore must be learned solely "by sight." An unfortunate result of this misconception is that many parents and teachers attempt to teach beginning readers the words without sufficient preparation.

NOTE: Phonograms are written symbols that represent speech sounds. Each letter of the alphabet is a phonogram. So are letter combinations like sh, wh, dge, ph, and oi.

It is possible to teach the Dolch words purely by "sight" with little attention to their phonetic elements, but doing so wastes precious instructional time. Preschoolers can begin learning the Dolch words as they learn their letters while they are still at home. Depending upon how early you begin, your five-year-old can have mastered all or most of the 220 Dolch words before starting school.

How to Teach the Dolch List to a Preschooler

The most effective method of teaching the Dolch words is to present them in carefully selected groups, and not randomly from the whole list.

  • Begin with four or five consonants and a vowel. For example, when your child knows the sounds that go with the letters d, n, c, m, h, and the short vowel sound of a, you can work with the words and, an, can, am, and had.
  • Provide the child with blocks, cards, or cut-out letters with which you and the child can "write" the words on the floor, table, or magnetic surface. In this way the child learns to listen for the separate sounds in words and to learn to trust the information provided by the phonograms. The ability to distinguish individual speech sounds in words is the best predictor of reading success.
  • Cut-out letters enable a child to begin "writing" before developing the motor skills necessary to form the letters, but don't neglect the handwriting aspect of your child's literacy. A growing misconception among parents and educators is that if children can learn to type, they needn't learn to write by hand. In fact, learning to form the letters by hand is an important stage in brain development.

The child who has learned the single letters of the alphabet (and their sounds), plus the "extra letters" sh, wh, th, ch, ng (a total of 31 phonograms) will be able to read and write more than a third of the Dolch List. Mastery of another 16 phonograms will enable your child to read and spell the remaining words on the list.

Once your child can spell the words with moveable letters, you can use flashcards to develop the desired sight recognition. Continue in this way to teach the phonograms before introducing the words that contain them.

Two Approaches to Reading

  1. Children who are taught the Dolch list purely as "sight" words will learn to read 220 words.
  2. Children who learn the 47 phonograms needed to spell the Dolch words will be able to read hundreds more English words without having to memorize them individually.



Literacy Pro, Maeve Maddox

Maeve Maddox is an academic generalist who has taught language and literature at every level from pre-school to university, in the United States and abroad. Now a freelance writer, she focuses on topics of cultural literacy, including beginning reading instruction and universal knowledge.

Her academic articles have been published in Education Today, The Christian Science Monitor, Translation Today, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, and a recent textbook about the Middle Ages. Her children's fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children and Jack and Jill Magazine.

Several hundred of Maeve's still-timely articles on language are archived at Daily Writing Tips where she was editor and chief contributor from its inception in 2007 until 2011. She is the School Reform Editor at the women';s magazine She offers tips on reading instruction and cultural literacy at, and discusses English usage in the media at Her most recent books available at include ;So You Want to Write! (50 essays on the writing craft), A Joan for All Seasons (film guide to six movies about Joan of Arc), and 100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid (brief style guide to common writing errors).

Maeve holds bachelor’s degrees in English from Oklahoma City University and the University of London (England). She holds the M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).