Helping readers acquire automaticity with a set of words frequently used in the English language, is a widely used practice. It is so common it is almost impossible to visit a K-2 classroom and not see readers either receiving instruction or practicing these words.
Why do teachers take precious instructional time for this? That’s easy, high-frequency words are an important part of learning to read. Thirteen, yes thirteen, words account for around 25% of words in print; if you up that number 100, that list of words makes up about 50% of print (Blevins, 2017). Therefore it only makes sense that educators everywhere are taking time to help students learn to read these words automatically.
Most of us have encountered many names for this group of words, such as high-frequency words, sight words, red words, or tricky words. Whatever you call them, you are probably referring to a similar group of words that come from any number of word lists (i.e. Fry Words, Dolch Words etc.). It’s important to establish some common language, so, I’m going to use the following definitions.
Sight Word – A word that is instantly recognized regardless of whether it is phonically regular or irregular. (Kilpatrick 2015)
Sight Vocabulary – All of the words a person can identify immediately and effortlessly, without the need to sound out the word or use context clues. It does not matter if the word is phonically regular or irregular. (Kilpatrick 2015)
High-Frequency Words – Are the words we see most often in printed English. High frequency words may or may not follow common sound-spelling patterns and could be thought of as regular or irregular. (Blevins 2017)
Orthographic Mapping – the process readers use to store written words for immediate, effortless retrieval. It is the way in which readers turn unfamiliar written words into instantly accessible sight words. (Kilpatrick 2015)
Teacher confession, at some point in my career, I know I’ve said to a student, “You just have to memorize it,” when working on high-frequency words. The truth is though, we don’t learn high-frequency words any differently than other words. They are all stored in our brain the same way, even those with irregularities (Kilpatrick 2015). It’s important to note that our sight vocabulary is made up of all the words we know automatically by sight, this includes high frequency words.
So, how do these get ‘stuck’ in our brains? Words with permanent and automatic recognition, less than a second, have been orthographically mapped. Orthographic mapping is a process in our brain that requires advanced phoneme awareness, letter-sound knowledge, and phonological long-term memory (Kilpatrick 2015). Readers don’t memorize whole words visually as chunks, they quickly analyze each letter-sound relationship to anchor the word in long-term memory (Kilpatrick 2015). Readers learn all words using this process, regular and irregular. Adult readers have thousands of words in their sight vocabulary, that’s why we aren’t laboriously decoding every word we come across.
What does all of this mean for high-frequency word instruction? We need to ground student learning in the orthographic mapping process that leads to automatic word reading. Remember, automatic word reading is crucial to fluency, which in turn frees up the brain to focus on comprehension. Making sure students have a large sight vocabulary is critical to comprehension. High-frequency words are particularly important because they appear so often and readers are guaranteed to encounter them while reading.
Try these FOUR teacher moves, to improve high-frequency word instruction in your classroom.
#1 Reorganize your high-frequency word list.
Most of the time, teachers are given a list of high-frequency words based on prevalence in print. So for example, the first words on the list are the ones most commonly used. Much of the time teachers teach the words in this order.
Rethink this practice by analyzing your high-frequency word list for the following:
Identify which words are phonetically decodable. Teach high frequency words that are decodable aligned to your phonics scope and sequence. (Burkins & Yates 2021)
Group words that are “irregular” but have something in common together. For example, to and do or come and some, should be taught at the same time. (Blevins 2017)
Spend more time on words that are confusing or have no clear meaning. All words should not be treated equally, some need more time and opportunities to analyze. (Blevins 2017)
#2 Put routines in place that prioritize phonology and orthographic mapping (Burkins & Yates 2021).
Remember readers learn and store all words the same in our brains, so high-frequency words should be taught using a sounds first approach.
Rethink your practices by:
Stretching and tapping the sounds in words, even words with irregular sound/spelling patterns.
Encourage readers to think about what their mouth, lips, and tongue are doing and how the air-flow feels.
Use auditory and visual models to align sounds and symbols, for example Elkonin sound boxes. Make sure readers pay attention to the sound-symbol relationships in the word.
Important Reminder: “The vast majority of exception words have only a single irregular letter-sound relationship.” “…there is evidence that when readers encounter new, irregular words, they create a “phonological framework” based on the regular letter-phoneme correspondences. They then make a mental note of the irregular elements.” (Kilpatrick 2015)
#3 Provide multiple opportunities to read words in and out of context.
Ask students to read word lists containing high frequency words for practice.
Add meaningful phrases or sentences to the backs of flashcards to deepen students’ understanding and give multiple exposure opportunities. (Blevins 2017).
Read connected text (sentences, paragraphs, and stories) giving all students authentic opportunities to practice reading (Burkins and Yates 2021)
#4 Let Assessment Guide You. (Burkins and Yates 2021)
Determine which words readers can read automatically (in less than a second).
Assess students in reading and writing of high frequency words.
Spend more instruction time on words that are confusing or that they do not know.
Let’s wrap everything up by reflecting on a few key takeaways. First, learning high frequency words is an important part of learning to read. Second, high frequency words are stored in our brains the same way as any other word, regardless if they are phonetically regular or irregular. Readers do not store visual memories of whole words. Third, there are some fairly easy moves we can make in our day to day instruction that will support readers as they learn high frequency words.
Blevins, Wiley. (2017). A Fresh Look at Phonics: Common Causes of Failure and 7 Ingredients for Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy.
Burkins, J. & Yates, K. (2021). Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.
Kilpatrick, David. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.