High Frequency Words: What They Are, How to Teach Them, and Which List to Use


High frequency words are the most common words in texts, the ones that appear most often. You might sometimes hear them called sight words. To break down the difference a bit, take a look at this: 

High frequency words

  • The most frequently used words in texts (especially in beginning children’s books)
  • Can be regularly spelled (no surprises – like the words “can” or “like”), or…
  • Can also have irregular spellings / surprising or tricky sounds (like the words “four” or “does”)

Sight words

  • Words that a reader knows instantly, by sight

In a nutshell, you’re trying to teach your students words that appear frequently in texts, so that these words eventually become instant words for the students to know by sight!

In this blog, I’ll walk you through some of the best ways to teach high frequency words. I’ll also go through which high frequency word lists you should be using! All of the resources you’ll see today come from my high frequency word resources!

High frequency words are the ones that appear most often in texts, so it's crucial that you teach them to students. In this post, I’ll discuss what high frequency words are, how to teach them, and what lists to use for Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade students.

How To Teach High Frequency Words

When it comes to high frequency words, there is quite a range of words that fall into this category! Sometimes, these words are decodable in the primary grades based on the phonics skills students have already learned. 

For instance, many high frequency words are simple CVC words. The word “can,” a CVC word, is considered a high frequency word. If students have this knowledge of phonics, they would be able to successfully decode this word. The “c” makes the /k/ sound, the “a” makes the short vowel /ă/ sound, and the “n” makes the /n/ sound. “/k/ /ă/ /n/.” (Depending upon your dialect of English, the a may sound a little extra “whiny” or “nasal-y” due to the n that comes after it, but this is still considered to be a regular sound.)

Other high frequency words follow a variety of phonics patterns, such as the silent e in “like” or the consonant-l-e pattern in “little.” These are both examples of regularly-spelled words.

But… if you know anything about the English language, then you know it can be difficult and occasionally inconsistent! Sometimes these high frequency words – the most frequently used words! – can actually be really tricky words /  irregular words.

​What I mean by this is that many of these words don’t follow traditional phonics rules. Let’s look at a couple of high frequency words for young learners:

  • “come” – if this followed traditional phonics rules of a CVCe word, the “e” at the end of this word would make the “o” into a long vowel sound (and therefore the word would be pronounced as the word “comb” is); however, you don’t pronounce this word /k/ /ō/ /m/; instead it’s pronounced /k/ /ŭ/ /m/
  • “of” – if this followed traditional phonics rules of a VC word, the word would be pronounced /ŏ/ /f/; instead, it’s pronounced /ŭ/ /v/

​Some of these words come from the oldest layers of English, meaning that they were some of the first written down. They have retained ages-old spelling patterns from English, which don’t always coincide with our current spelling patterns and pronunciations.

So, if Kindergarten students, first grade students, or second grade students are coming across these new words in a text, these irregularly spelled words will not be decodable words for them (they can’t sound them out as easily as they can for regularly spelled words). This is one reason why students need lots of practice with these irregularly-spelled high frequency words! 

When I was first trained in how to teach reading (in my undergraduate teacher prep program), I was taught to have kids learn these words by paying attention to how they look visually. Even during some professional development, I was taught to have students “memorize” high frequency words just by looking at them on flash cards.

Especially with the irregularly spelled words (which are sometimes called “heart words”), the idea was that “since they don’t follow a pattern, students just need to remember them.” However, that’s not entirely true!

While students DO need to learn and remember the “tricky parts” of words like “come,” they actually need to apply phonics (letter-sound) knowledge to reading all words, even the irregularly spelled ones.

Our brains learn words through a process called orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping is the “in the brain” process of forming connections between letters and sounds. The result of this process is that written words are stored in the brain, so that readers recognize them automatically (without sounding them out). For more information on this, read my post entitled “How (And Why!) To Map Irregularly-Spelled High Frequency Words.”

When we teach a high frequency word – even an irregularly spelled one – we want to do it an effective way, where we talk to our students about the meaning of the word, the sounds in the word, and the spelling of the word (this is based on research).

In the photo above, students trace the word, find and circle the word, push the individual sounds (/th/ /ă/ /t/) into boxes as they say them, write the individual sounds, read the word, and write the word. This activity is an independent practice that comes after direct instruction on the word (where you introduce it, help students understand how the word “that” is used in language, and teach them the connections between the letters and sounds in the word).

Again, we need to follow this process even when a word is irregularly spelled! With the word “come,” for example, you might:

  1. Use the word in an example sentence and have students make up their own example sentences.
  2. Have students segment the word orally.
  3. Map the word into sound boxes and show them the sounds that are familiar to them (/k/ for c and /m/ for m), as well as the surprising vowel sound (the short u sound for o, rather than a long o due to the silent e).

Then, if a student is reading and gets to an irregularly-spelled word that has been taught, but they don’t recognize it, you can still encourage them to sound it out! If they don’t recognize the “tricky part” at first, they may end up self-correcting once they blend. And if not, you can prompt, “Which sound is tricky?”

Because high frequency words appear often in texts, we want students to be able to read them quickly and easily. This helps build their overall reading fluency!

You’ll want to work on both irregularly spelled and regularly spelled high frequency words. I teach students to read AND spell these words (learning to spell them actually helps them with reading, too!). Irregularly spelled words usually take students longer to master, but we also want to cover regularly spelled words because students will see them often in text. For example, you’ll want to spend more time on the word “can” than “lag.” “Can” is regularly spelled, but it’s much more common for students to see than the word “lag,” so it deserves more time and practice.

Some students will need only 1-4 exposures to a word in order to learn it as a sight word. Some students, however, will require dozens of exposures. To give students the repetition and practice they need, it’s important to have lots of high frequency word practice activities on hand.

For example, here’s a fun way to have students review their high frequency words – have them play games to review!

Another great way to have students learn their high frequency words is to see them in the context of a passage. This is the whole point of teaching students high frequency words – they need to be able to recognize them as they read. In my high frequency word resources, students have an opportunity to do just that!

Students can complete these high frequency word activities as part of their phonics lessons, in small groups, or in an individual setting. 

Which High Frequency Words List Should I Use?

When it comes to deciding which high frequency word list to use, I recommend either the Fry list (my preference) or the Dolch list.

  1. Fry Sight Words:
    • Created by Dr. Edward Fry, this list is organized by frequency and includes 1,000 words. The first 300 words in the list make up a majority of all words in any general text.
  2. Dolch Sight Words:
    • Developed by Dr. Edward William Dolch, this list covers frequently used words in children’s literature. They are categorized by grade level into pre-primer, primer, first grade, second grade, and third-grade levels.’

I have bundles of high frequency word worksheets, games, and passages that follow the Fry list or the Dolch list!

For my High Frequency Word Products, I have Focus Sheets, Activities, and Games available for these subsets of the Fry and Dolch lists:

I also have an editable version in case you want to use a different word list than Fry or Dolch!


High frequency words serve as stepping stones for a student’s literacy proficiency, enabling early readers to navigate written texts with confidence. By understanding what high frequency words are, implementing effective teaching strategies, and choosing an appropriate word list, you can empower students and help build their fluency!

Happy teaching!


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I’m Alison, a literacy specialist. I love getting kids excited about reading and writing – and sharing teaching ideas with other teachers!

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