A Meta-Analysis and Review of Sight Word Research and Its Implications for Teaching Functional Reading to Individuals with Moderate and Severe Disabilities

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NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 43 describes the following:

Title | A Meta-Analysis and Review of Sight Word Research and Its Implications for Teaching Functional Reading to Individuals with Moderate and Severe Disabilities

Author | Browder, D.M., & Xin, Y.P.

SourceJournal of Special Education, 32(3), 130-153.

Year Published | 1998

Reviewed 48 studies of sight-word research (SWR) from 1980 to 1997 with individuals with disabilities to determine the overall effectiveness of SWR and its impact on individuals with moderate and severe disabilities. Most students had moderate intellectual disability (mean IQ=55) and were elementary school students, but a wide age range was represented, including adults. A meta-analysis using the percentage of nonoverlapping data points revealed that sight-word instruction has been highly effective across individuals for people with moderate and severe disabilities. New strategies have included giving instructive feedback for additional learning, applying constant time delay in group formats, and using more elaborate feedback procedures in a post-response prompting format. These innovations also included teaching sight words in the context of the community and in general education classes using either heterogeneous groups or peer tutoring. A persistent limitation of SWR is the failure to measure functional use.

The ability to read sight words provides a foundation for students with moderate to severe disabilities to develop daily living and job skills. Sight word skills are used in tasks such as cooking, using public transportation, reading signs in the school and community, identifying warning labels, and going grocery shopping. As the number of students with moderate to severe disabilities included in general education classrooms has increased, sight words have been increasingly used to teach functional academic skills along with daily living skills. This study investigated both the overall effectiveness of sight word training for students with moderate to severe disabilities as well as the most effective methods for teaching sight words.

Research Questions

  1. What is the overall effectiveness of sight word research, and what is its specific impact on individuals with moderate and severe disabilities?
  2. Have new instructional methods emerged since prior reviews on sight words?

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | 48
  • Number of Subjects | 269
  • Years Spanned | 1980-1997

Research Subjects

  • Elementary-school students (63%)
  • Secondary students (20%)
  • Adults (17%)
  • Only 1 study focused on preschool students.

Age/Grade of Subjects
Preschool to Adult. Information on the specific age range was not included.

Specified Disability

  • Most of the participants had moderate to severe disabilities (n=177).
  • Others were diagnosed with learning  disabilities (LD) (n=38), mild intellectual disability (n=30), severe emotional disturbance (n=13), developmental delay (n=6), and Autism(n=5).


  • Participants were introduced to sight words in small sets, from 2 to 10 words, with a median of 4 words per set.
  • Most studies (87%) trained to a master criterion level (usually 100% correct for 1-4 probes/sessions); about half of the studies (46%) checked for comprehension.
  • Most interventions were provided individually (75%), but some used small-group instruction (25%).

Duration of Intervention

The data suggest that the interventions used to teach sight words to students with disabilities, especially those with moderate intellectual disability, were highly effective.

Combined Effects Size

  • The percentage of non-overlapping data (PND) was calculated for the 32 studies that utilized a single-subject design. The PND across all sight-word interventions was 91%, which suggests a considerable treatment effect.
  • The PND for participants with mild disabilities = 95%
  • The PND for participants with severe disabilities = 89%.

Several limitations of this study (redundancy of student participants, lack of independent samples, focus on published literature), suggest the results should be viewed with caution.

These data suggest that the interventions used to teach sight words to students with disabilities, especially students with moderate intellectual disability, are highly effective. Effective methods uncovered in this work for teaching sight words include:

  • Giving students feedback after they read a word set and allowing them to repeat word sets after error correction.
  • Allowing students to choose between several effective methods for learning sight words (e.g., time delay, task demonstration, feedback). This approach increases student motivation for the task.
  • Providing generalization activities for students. For example, students who have learned from flashcards benefit from the opportunity to practice their sight words where the words are typically found, whether it is on household items, signs in the community, or in their school books.

Future Research
Only about 10% of the studies in this meta-analysis tested students’ comprehension of the sight words. Thus, even when students correctly identified a sight word, it was not clear if they knew what the word meant. Students, for example, might correctly read the word “poison” on a warning label but not know that this word means they should not drink the product. The authors suggest that further research examining students’ comprehension of sight words is an essential next step in sight-word research.

* Meta-Analysis | A widely-used research method in which (1) a systematic and reproducible search strategy is used to find as many studies as possible that address a given topic; (2) clear criterion are presented for inclusion/exclusion of individual studies into a larger analysis; and (3) results of included studies are statistically combined to determine an overall effect (effect size) of one variable on another.

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