Teaching high frequency words and sight words is a key practice in most early learning classrooms. You might be wondering what’s the difference between the two sets of words, and how to help students learn these words. Keep reading to find out! (If you are looking for ways to practice these words in quick games, read part 2 of the series.)
What’s the difference between high frequency words and sight words?
High frequency words and sight words are often thought to mean the same thing. However, there are some subtle differences between the two terms.
High frequency words are the words that appear most frequently in written text. Some examples of high frequency words include: the, to, have, went. These words are included in popular word lists, such as the Fry and Dolch lists, as well as lists from various textbook companies.
This is part of an extensive word list from This Reading Mama.
Sight words are words that a student can read quickly and automatically, or by sight. As adults, most words we read are sight words. We don’t spend much mental energy solving sight words – we just know them. Sight words don’t fall under any particular list – they can vary from student to student. Early sight words often include the student’s name and names of family members (mom, dad), names of friends and other words that are important to the student. They can also include some high frequency words.
When teaching high frequency words, our goal is to increase the number of words that a student knows by sight. We hope that the most common words (high frequency words) become sight words for our students.
Do kids just have to memorize high frequency words?
A common misperception about high frequency words is that the only way kids can learn to read them is by memorizing them. This is not exactly true. In fact, reading researcher Nell Duke recommends that we teach high frequency words in much the same way we teach decodable words. (Her article is really helpful.)
Students use a process called “orthographic mapping” to learn to read words automatically. In this process, students connect the sounds they hear in the spoken word (in sequence) to the letters used to spell the written word.
Some high frequency words are phonetically regular (such as “can,” “in” and “and.”) These are easier for brains to orthographically map. Other words are less regular and require more attention to the process.
Phonetically Regular Words
These words can be solved by “sounding them out” – saying each sound and blending those sounds together. Frequent practice reading these kinds of words (in isolation and within continuous text) helps them become sight words.
It is critical that students pay attention to all the letters, even in these phonetically regular words, when they practice reading them. This helps the brain commit the entire word to memory, rather than just relying on the first letter and the general “shape” of the word.
Phonetically Irregular Words
You can’t avoid using words like “the” and “was” until kids develop more of the phonics skills that apply to these words. They show up often enough that kids need to learn them.
When teaching irregular words like these, it is still important to help students look carefully at the letters from left to right as they learn these words. This careful attention helps kids notice the letters and distinguish similar words, such as “is” and “in.”
As students are learning these irregular words, it’s still important to help them pay attention to the letter sounds. For instance, in “was,” the w spells the /w/ sound – it’s regular sound. And the s spells /z/, like it does in “is.” Connecting to something known makes learning new things easier.
Finally, it can be helpful to teach these words in groups, such as “to, do” or “we, he, me, she.” Focusing on the similarities between these words helps students use what they know about one word to read a similar word.
Why teach high frequency words?
For very early readers, high frequency words help students to monitor their reading. At times, beginning readers point to a word, but say something completely different. Teaching high frequency words (even just a few) allows them to “anchor” their reading to the text – when they point to the word “like” they say “like.”
For slightly more advanced readers, increasing sight words improves fluency, particularly reading rate and phrasing. When students know words automatically, they are more likely to read the words quickly and in meaning-based phrases. Reading words automatically can also allow more mental energy to be devoted to expression, the role of punctuation, comprehension, and solving unknown words.
Another reason for teaching high frequency words, is that well-known words can help readers solve new words. If a student knows the word “look” automatically, it can help them read the word “book” by using the “-ook” part of “look.” Developing the ability to use a known word to solve an unfamiliar word helps students to solve words quickly, on-the-run.
What words should I start with?
Initially, you will want to start with words that your students are seeing over and over, in multiple settings. Even though they are not high frequency words, you might start with the names of the students in your class. Names are powerful words for young readers. Your students will be very engaged as you work with their names.
To select actual high frequency words, think about words that appear often in your classroom instruction. If your shared reading books/poems include “I” and “like,” teach those words to your students. Or if your first guided reading books say “We can…” teach those words.
This poem is part of the dramatic play school center – but any shared reading poem will work. In this poem students can practice words such as: up, I, you.
One final consideration… When selecting additional words to focus on, frequently choose words your students “partially know.” This means words that they sometimes know quickly and sometimes have to think about – or they may know it in one book, but not consistently in another. Your students will learn partially known words faster than unknown words (they already know something about that word). That will help them learn these words more rapidly and feel successful. This is especially true for your students who need the most support with reading.
How many words should I focus on at a time?
There is not a magic number of high frequency words to work on at a time. Instead, it’s important to choose a number that doesn’t overwhelm the student. For very beginning readers, you might choose to focus on 2-3 words at a time. As students learn how to learn words, you can increase the number a bit. As with most learning, success breeds success. Choosing a small enough number of words so the child feels successful will lead to accelerated learning down the road.
What are some meaningful ways to practice high frequency words?
Provide meaningful practice when teaching high frequency words. This is best accomplished by practicing the words in continuous text, rather than in isolation. Continuous text can include shared reading, texts created through interactive or shared writing, or books or readers’ theater scripts used for independent or guided reading.
Select readers’ theater scripts that contain a number of basic high frequency words.
It is particularly powerful if students can encounter the same word in multiple texts throughout a day:
- If a group of students is learning the word “can,” you might include the word in your morning message.
- Select a morning Question of the Day that includes the word “can.”
- Later, select a few poems for shared reading that include the word “can.”
- Your guided reading book for that group could also include the word “can” on several pages.
The Question of the Day routine can be a meaningful and engaging way to practice high frequency words in continuous text.
Allowing for repeated, intentional practice helps the word become known in multiple settings – moving from partially known to well known.
How can students practice words in continuous text?
When students practice words in continuous text, it provides meaningful and authentic reading opportunities (how often do YOU read words from a flashcard?) As students are reading, you can support their learning of high frequency words in the following ways:
- Invite the class to locate the word in the morning message (with their eyes). Then have one student point to the word in the message. Have the class read the sentence with that word chorally.
- As you read a shared reading poem, express amazement that the word has appeared again in this text. Point it out or invite a student (who partially knows the word) to find the word.
- Before beginning the guided reading book (or after finishing it), have students turn to a page that contains the word and frame it with their fingers (see photo.)
Children can “frame” a high frequency word with their fingers before or after reading the book.
Don’t overdue this work. Simply reading the word within the text helps the child learn the word. Focusing on 2-4 words in a text is enough to allow practice without taking away from the meaning of the text.
Finally, as students are learning new words, remember to help them connect reading and writing as they learn the word.:
- As you use the word in interactive writing, invite a student to write that word on the chart for you.
- Following guided reading, engage the group in a brief interactive writing experience that includes the word. Alternately, you could dictate a sentence from the book (containing the focus word) for them to write.
- During writers’ workshop, nudge students to spell the word correctly, consulting a familiar text to see that they spelled it correctly.
Students can write high frequency words they are learning during an interactive writing session.
These intentional teacher moves will help your students to know the word across multiple contexts.
Are there other ways to practice high frequency words?
High frequency words can also be practiced in isolation – this means by working on the word alone, not within the context of the sentence. You want to use this approach sparingly, because reading is not made up of words in isolation. You run the risk of students knowing a word on a flashcard, but not recognizing it when they see it within a text.
However, it is appropriate to practice words in isolation for a few minutes a day. This can help students focus on the “fine details” of a word – the specific order of the letters in the word, the difference between two similar words, etc. Practicing words in isolation also allows for more intense practice of individual words – you can make sure the child sees the word frequently when words are practiced in isolation. Just remember to pull that word back into continuous text for additional practice.
Part 2 of this blog offers several suggestions for quick and easy ways to practice high frequency words in isolation.
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