Let’s start by being clear about teaching high-frequency words! Are they high-frequency words or sight words; popcorn words, flash words, heart words, or tricky words? Perhaps they’re decodable, nondecodable, regular, or irregular. How do we make sense of it all? Why should we teach high-frequency words? How should we teach them?
Perhaps, some definitions would be a helpful place to start!
Definitions for Understanding
- High-frequency words are simply words that are found frequently in the text that we read. These words can be phonetically regular or irregular.
- Sight words are those words that we recognize instantly and can retrieve from memory without conscious effort. These words can be phonetically regular or irregular, decodable or nondecodable, high-frequency or low frequency.
- Phonetically regular words can be decoded by using common phonics knowledge. They have the expected letter-sound relationships.
- Phonetically irregular words deviate from common phonics patterns and letter-sound relationships. Of note, most irregular words have only one irregular letter-sound relationship. For instance, in the word from, only the sound that the letter o represents is different from what we expect.
- Decodable words are words that have letter-sound relationships you have already learned. And yes, this is personal! For example, one child has learned to decode CVC words while another child also knows all the long vowel patterns. The set of words that is decodable for each child is different, even though all of these words are phonetically regular.
- Nondecodable words are words that either deviate from common phonics patterns and letter-sound relationships (permanently nondecodable, irregular words) or that you haven’t learned the patterns and relationships so you can’t decode them yet (temporarily nondecodable).
- Popcorn words, heart words, flash words, and trick(y) words are labels that educators have used to make learning more kid-friendly. Popcorn words refer to both high-frequency and sight words. Heart and trick(y) words are terms for (temporarily or permanently) nondecodable words. Although, I’ve also seen heart words used to encompass all high-frequency words. Flash words are high-frequency words with a regular spelling.
- Orthographic mapping is the connection between how we pronounce a word and how it is spelled.
Why Teach High-Frequency Words?
First and foremost, why do we want to teach high-frequency words?
We want our students to instantly recognize words, for words to become “sight” words. We want them to read words automatically, without the need for overt decoding. When they can do this with most of the words they encounter in connected text (hmm… would those be high-frequency words?), fluency develops. Consequently, the development of a “sight word” vocabulary has a direct impact on reading fluency.
There’s been a shift (maybe a seismic one!) in how to teach high-frequency words in recent years.
I taught them through a combination of repeated exposure, multi-sensory experiences, and word cards with visual cues. My focus was on naming the letters in sequence and reading the word. But, what’s current?
Current Thinking About Teaching High-Frequency Words
So, what’s important when teaching high-frequency words? How do we help our students develop a lexicon of sight words? Here are a few take-aways from my readings on this topic.
- Learning to recognize words by “sight” or with automaticity is not dependent on visual memory or visual skills.
- Memorizing words as a whole is not efficient. It is an arduous way to acquire new sight words.
- Teach a small set of 10-15 irregular and nondecodable (based on your students’ levels of phonics knowledge) words before or concurrently with learning to decode in kindergarten. The words you choose should be those your students will encounter frequently in the text they read. They should be the words that will glue together the decodable text you’re using. Examples include the words the, to, was, and you.
- Include high-frequency word instruction with your phonics lessons. Many (Dare I say most!) high-frequency words are phonetically regular.
- Use phonetically regular high-frequency words to help your students learn to decode new words (decoding by analogy approach).
- Teach words (phonetically regular or irregular) in groups that have similar patterns. The words can, man, ran, than, and began are phonetically regular high-frequency words. While the words have, give, and live (the letter v is followed by an e because no English words end in v); some, come, and done; or to, do, and into have irregular spellings.
- Meaning and context are important. When you introduce a new word, say it and use it. You need to fuse the pronunciation, spelling, and meaning of a word together.
- Practice reading high-frequency words in lists, phrases, sentences, and in books.
- Don’t forget to also practice writing high-frequency words in isolation and in sentences.
- In other words, teach your students to both decode and encode (read and spell) new words.
What About Orthographic Mapping?
Is this just the latest buzz word or is this something I need to be doing?
- Your students must understand the connection between phonology (the sounds) and orthography (the strings of letters) in order to store words for automatic retrieval. Wait, is this the same as orthographic mapping? Is this how students remember words?
- We need to teach the relationships between the sounds we hear and the letters we see, even when it is an irregularly spelled word. Here’s where all the current references to orthographic mapping, mapping, and heart words come into play.
- Students need to possess letter-sound proficiency and phonemic proficiency to develop efficient orthographic mapping. Efficient orthographic mapping leads to sight word acquisition.
- Phoneme blending and phoneme analysis are both necessary skills for orthographic mapping. Phoneme blending is blending sounds. Phoneme analysis is a bit more ambiguous. It includes segmenting but also rhyming, manipulation, alliteration, isolation, and categorization. A (still somewhat vague) phonemic proficiency that exceeds the ability to segment and blend develops naturally in most students. Exactly what skills struggling readers need to master is still a subject for further research.
Sounds like something I need to be doing!
More About Orthographic Mapping
One of the things that stood out to me when I read about orthographic mapping is that it starts with the oral pronunciation of the word. The first step in introducing a new word is to say it, not to show it.
I can relate this to how I introduce phonetically regular key words using the decoding by analogy approach. The process I employed is based on Linnea Ehri’s work. Now I know, this same process can also be applied to phonetically irregular words.
Here’s what I do.
- Say the word. But, don’t show it, yet!
- Have your students repeat the word.
- “Thumbs up! Let’s stretch it out.”
- “How many sounds do you hear?”
- Now, you can show the word to your students.
- “How many letters do you see?”
- “What can you tell me about the relationship between the sounds we hear and the letters we see?”
- Demonstrate the letter-sound relationships visually and verbally on the board or chart paper.
You can get a better sense of this process by downloading a free sample of my Phonics Program for Analogy-Based Decoding. This sample will also show you how you can use phonetically regular high-frequency words to help your students learn to decode new words.
I suggest introducing new high-frequency words with this or a similar process before moving on to the more visual and concrete mapping activities you frequently see. Try it and tell me what you think!
A Few Ideas for Teaching High-Frequency Words
Memory Match or Concentration
One of the examples I saw for sorting and categorizing words by phonemes used a good ole Memory Match game. Instead of having students match two of the same word, they can match two words with the same phoneme. For instance, the words that and there would be a match because they both begin with the /th/ sound. The words men and run would match because they both end with the /n/ sound.
Get your students up and moving with a partner pair-up. Apply the same sorting and categorizing strategy as above. Select pairs of words with matching phonemes. You will need one word card for each student.
First, pass out the cards randomly. Next, have your students get up and find someone who has a word with a matching phoneme. Finally, have each pair of students read their matching pair of words. How’s that for a quick activity?
Use my free Phonetically Organized High-Frequency Word Lists along with the high-frequency word cards found in my High-Frequency Words- 6 Activities and Games With a Sandcastle Theme or Roll A Rainbow resources to create your own memory match games and partner pair-ups based on the high-frequency words your students are learning. These resources are based on a list of 354 high-frequency words. I merged together the words from two popular lists.
Try modifying some of the activities and materials you already have!
Playing a game to practice reading high-frequency words? Have your students write the words that they read on a whiteboard or piece of paper. Or have them choose 3-5 words to write in sentences. Don’t forget to have them read their word lists or sentences- to you, to a parent, to a partner.
Read, Build, and Write Mats
Using a Read, Build, and Write (or similar) mat? Have your students say the word and then stretch out the sounds they hear. Encourage them to think about the letter(s) that match those phonemes as they build and write the word. Ask them to tell or write a sentence with each word.
Some Reading to Get You Started
Feeling more up-to-date on teaching high-frequency words? As I started to research this topic, I found myself going down a rabbit hole, a seemingly bottomless one at that!
Here are a few of the sites I visited to get up-to-speed on teaching high-frequency words.
- Teaching Sight Words According to Science Ohio 2019 (presentation, some blurry visuals, still worth reading)
- Teach “Sight Words” As You Would Other Words (International Literacy Association 2016, Nell K. Duke and Heidi Anne E. Mesner)
- High Frequency Words? Sight Words? Is There a Difference (The Reading Teacher’s Top Ten Tools, Dr. Deb Glaser)
- Why Phonemic Proficiency is Necessary for All Readers (CORE)
- This reading skill may not sound exciting, but is it the ‘missing piece’? (EdNC, Rupen Fofaria)
- RIP to Advanced Phonemic Awareness (Shanahan on Literacy)
- Heart Word Magic (Really Great Reading)(Be sure to scroll and check out the free student practice activities.)
I still have a few lingering questions about teaching high-frequency words. So, back to the books! I’d love to hear about your experiences and questions in the comments below!
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