struggling readers phonics reading instruction methodologies

How to teach sight words to struggling readers? The Phonetic Flashcard Method to SIGHT WORDS!

In today’s article we are going to talk about how to learn sight words using flashcards. 

If you are a regular reader, you might be a little bit surprised that I am talking about flashcards for teaching sight words!

Don’t worry!

Even if we are going to use flashcards, that doesn’t mean that we are going to ask our children or students to memorize these words.

Not at all!

We are going to decode these sight words, instead!

We are going to read them phonetically (at least as much as we can), even the “tricky” ones, using some very special flashcards.

These special flashcards are a fantastic tool for our struggling readers and for our beginner readers.

You’ll  discover exactly why that is in this article.

Of course, some of the high-frequency words in these flashcards can’t be decoded phonetically, at least not in its entirety. That means that some chunks in these words are regular  (phonetically decodable), while others are not.

We’ll also learn how to go about these high-frequency words in today’s article!

The Phonetic Flashcard Method to Sight Words

The flashcards that I am going to use look like this:

They are a little bit different, right?

Let’s see what these colors and symbols mean, and how these flashcards can help students, especially beginning and struggling readers.

What do the colors mean?

The first thing to notice is that these flashcards are color-coded.

This is to facilitate the students’ job and to help them make sense of the rules in a very intuitive way.

Let’s see what the different colours mean:

  • The black parts: These black chunks are 100% phonetically-decodable. Not only that, these parts are also read with the most common sound these letters say. This is the first sound children learn for that letter. For instance, “a” for “apple”, (not ā, as in the second sound in the word “made”), “c” for “cat” (not /s/, as in the last sound of the word “place”), “e” for “elephant” (not ē, as in the last sound in the word “me”). In the example below, all of these words are 100% in black. Therefore, they are very easily decodable. There’s nothing “strange” going on, no strange rules! We just need to know letter sounds and how to blend.

  • The green parts: This means there is a phonics rule going on. However, there’s no irregularity or an unexpected spelling. This is just a little heads-up to tell our students: “Watch out, you’ll have to recall some rule that you know about!” For instance, this can be the long ā sound for the letter “a” instead of its short sound. We find this, for example, in high-frequency words like “take” or “make.”

Remember, there’s no irregularity or unexpected spelling here! It’s just that the phonics rules that apply are slightly more advanced!

  • The orange parts: There is a “slight irregularity” going on. It’s not the most common sound for that letter or group of letters, but it isn’t a true exception either. For example, when the letter “s” makes the “z” sound.
  • The red parts: There is a true irregularity, quite an unexpected spelling going on.

You may have noticed that the flashcards also have symbols.

This is to help our beginning readers even further make sense of phonics rules in an intuitive way.

What do the symbols in these phonics flashcards mean?

Let’s go through them one by one. See image below!

Symbols Code Key
Some of the symbols are: Underlined letters go together (digraphs, vowel teams, bossy r syllables); the slash means it is a silent letter; an open door means it is an open syllable; the little bee – “the buzz effect” – the letter “s” makes the /z/ sound; the doted line indicates there’s a syllable break…

Get Your Free Sample/ Buy Flashcards!

What are the numbers on the top left corner?

You may have noticed there are numbers on the top-left corner of each flashcard.

What do those numbers mean?

They are actually the position the word holds in the Dolch ranking.

This information can be very useful if you are a teacher or a homeschooling parent teaching your child to read, and want to create your own phonics materials.

The lowest the number, the most frequent the word is.


Order of introduction of high-frequency words and effective strategies to teach them

Now that we know what the different colors and symbols mean and how these flashcards can truly help out our children, let’s talk about the order of introduction of these words and what it is that we can to make the process of learning these words more effective and smoother for our children or students.

Our go-to number #1 strategy is to trying to align their introduction with your children or students’ phonics lessons as much as possible.

For example, if you are teaching the “th” digraph (voiced), take the high-frequency words with the “th” digraph in them, such us “this”, “that”, “then” or “them” and introduce them as part of that phonics lesson, instead of introducing these words another day, in a list with other random words that have nothing to do with the lesson.

This is quite different from the “normal” approach.

In general, high-frequency words instruction is disconnected from phonics instruction. This means that whether the phonics rules that govern these words have been taught and explicitly explained to children or not, is not taken into consideration.

Integrating high-frequency words in our phonics lessons as much as we can makes a lot sense, though. It allows students understand (and integrate) the spelling patterns these words have, which will lead to long-term memory retention.

This strategy, in conjunction with our special flashcards – that allow our kids understand what is going on in a very intuitive way (which parts we need to pay close attention to, which parts are just normal)- can be extremely beneficial for students learning high-frequency words.

Note:  The flashcards are classified by phonics difficulty level (1 -5), but this is for your reference only, so you have a clear guide to refer to when you want to quickly check the decodability of a word. As we want to align them with our own materials, my recommendation would be that you  laminate them, cut them individually and sort them out according to your own needs.

Where can I get these flashcards?

Even though based on what I have just shared with you, you can go ahead and create your own flashcards, these flashcards are also available from our “Discover our Literacy Materials” section.

They are very affordable, and you can get a free sample before buying.

Get Your Free Sample/ Buy Flashcards!

Besides, you will not only get the colour coded flashcards.

You get a bundle with “normal” flashcards, coloring flashcards, and a “HOW TO” document that is like a crash course on High-Frequency Words in itself.

In this “How to” document on High-frequency words, you will, of course, learn how to use these phonics flashcards, but you’ll also find detailed explanations about the phonics rules that govern these sight words, and you’ll discover great ways to teach the irregular high-frequency words (the ones that do not so much phonetical sense!).

For more information on that specific topic, I’d encourage you to also read this article.

Should I use these phonics flashcards forever?

In my opinion, these flashcards are a “temporary” teaching tool. Once your child or student has been exposed to the color-coded flashcards a few times and you believe he/she has understood the rules, you may want to start using regular plain flashcards.

In fact, you can easily have sight word boxes, and you put the words your child has already mastered in one, and the ones that need further review in another one.

Once a word goes in the “already mastered” category, you can start using plain flashcards for that one.

How can I use coloring flashcards?

Coloring the letters on our coloring flashcards can be a great hands-on activity for your children or students.

Foto de Aaron Burden en Unsplash

They can reinforce their learning and you can check if your students have understood the rules. You can either set up the coloring rules, or let them come up their own color key and symbols.


I hope today’s article has inspired you to look at high-frequency words in a different way, and has given you ideas of strategies you can start applying, especially if you are working with children or students that are struggling with them!

Get Your Free Sample/ Buy Flashcards!


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