High Frequency Sight Words
Educators sometimes confuse the following related terms: sight words, high frequency words, decodable words, irregular words. Sight words are words that are instantly recognized and identified without conscious effort. High frequency words are the words most commonly used in the English language. Because high frequency words are essential to learning how to read, teachers should begin to teach some high frequency words as sight words to children in primary grades at the same time children are being taught how to use phonics to decode words. Teachers introduce these words as soon as kindergarten if their students are ready.
Some high frequency words are decodable – they can be “sounded out” using regular phonics concepts (e.g., in, and, had, that, him, did, then, with, down, at, on, can, like). Some high frequency words are irregular – they are not phonetic and must be read as a unique word (e.g., the, was, from, have, of, there, want, you, said, does). When a teacher introduces a new high frequency word, it is helpful to point out to children if it is irregular or if it is decodable using the phonics concepts the children have learned.
At first, high frequency words are the words young students learn to read by sight (e.g., the, what) along with words that are meaningful to each child (e.g., family names, name of their town). Over time, many words that young students read by applying decoding skills eventually become sight words – that is, students learn to read them automatically by sight through the orthographic mapping process.
There is no definitive list of which high frequency words should be taught at which grade level or at which time of year in a grade level. Reading programs typically incorporate some instruction of high frequency words into daily lessons. Teachers can also select words to teach from word lists such as the Fry 100 List (the 100 most common words used in English, ranked in order of frequency, Fry, 1980). See the list at the end of this post.
- Follow a consistent procedure for teaching students to read and spell a high frequency word that is multisensory and includes multiple exposures. For example:
- Teach new high frequency words before students encounter them in text they are reading.
- Write the word on the board (or show it on a card) and spell it aloud pointing to each letter. Describe the parts of the word that are regularly spelled and the parts that are not.
- Students spell and trace the letter in the air (e.g., air writing) to support large muscle memory or on paper using two fingers to support fine muscle memory.
- Students cover the word and try to picture it in memory, then try to write it from memory.
- Students repeat steps 3 and 4 several times to develop automaticity to read and spell the word.
- Limit the number of words introduced at one time.
- Introduce visually similar irregular words, such as where and were or was and saw, in separate lessons to avoid confusion (Carreker, 1996).
- For irregular words, help students discover the parts of the word that do not represent their most common sounds. Circle or underline the irregular pattern (e.g., said, from) (Carreker, 1996).
- Spiral back and review words that have been previously taught.
- The Really Great Reading Company has a free resource “Heart Word Magic” for helping students learn sight words, especially those that are not decodable (irregular). This resource is a growing collection of 2-minute videos that review information about a sight word such as said, from, and have. They can be used in a virtual teaching situation. Click here to access.
- Read the article “A New Model for Teaching High-Frequency Words” (Farrell, Hunter, Osenga) at the Reading Rockets website.
- The website SIGHTWORDS offers a collection of instructional resources.
Carreker, S. (1999). Teaching spelling. In J.R. Birsch (Ed.), Multisensory teaching of basic language skills. Baltimore: Brookes.
Fry, E. (1980.) The new instant word list. The Reading Teacher, 34(3), 284-289