The Way I Learned to Teach High Frequency Words Was Wrong (And What I Now Do Instead)

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My first experience with teaching high frequency words was filled with confusion.

At that time, I was working as a reading tutor while also getting my undergraduate degree to become a certified teacher.

As part of the reading tutoring program, I was supposed to introduce a few high frequency words on flash cards to a Kindergarten student. When possible, we were supposed to connect the high frequency words (aka sight words) to the books that we were reading with the child.

And I was confused.

I remember thinking, “Wait…you just put the word on a card and he’s going to learn it? Just plain old memorization?”

It didn’t feel right to me. It felt boring. And not only that – it felt like it didn’t reflect the way young children learn. Weren’t they supposed to be moving around? Doing hands-on activities?

Moreover, I didn’t even really understand what a “sight word” was. I thought that all sight words were spelled irregularly – and that memorization was the only way to learn them.

Well. It turns out I was wrong!

In this blog post, I’ll share what I’ve learned since then. I’ll also share tips for how to teach sight words / high frequency words so that they really STICK! (And so that it’s actually fun, too.) 🙂

Do you know the best ways to teach high frequency words? This blog post.
Photo Credits: Black-Photogaphy

What are high frequency words?

First of all, let’s clarify the terms “high frequency words” and “sight words.” Here’s my current understanding of the terms:

High frequency words –

  • Words that appear frequently in texts (especially beginning books for children)
  • Can be regularly spelled (no surprises – like the words “can” or “like”)
  • Can also be irregularly spelled / have surprising or tricky sounds (like the words “four” or “does”)

Sight words –

  • Words that a reader knows instantly, by sight

I used to say “sight words,” but now I mostly use the term “high frequency words.”

I like this term because even though it’s a little wordier, it better represents what I’m truly trying to teach. (I’m trying to teach my students words that appear frequently in text, so that they eventually become sight words for the students.)

How do readers learn high frequency words?

Memorization certainly plays a role in learning high frequency words. But there’s more to it than that!

When someone is learning a new word, the learning process works best when these 3 areas of the brain are activated:

  1. The part where meaning is stored
  2. The part where spelling is stored
  3. The part where sounds are stored

Do the first two resonate with you? You probably have students practice reading high frequency words in sentences or even making up their own sentences with the words. And you might have students learn to spell the words.

But what about #3? Did you know that it IS valuable to help students think about the sounds in a high frequency word?

If #3 has you saying, “Whoa!” or “Really??” – then I can relate! I was surprised by that, too.

Brain Area #1: Meaning

When students are learning a high frequency word, they need to understand what it means. They need to hear it in the context of a sentence. They should also come up with their own example sentences (orally and/or in writing).

Students should have multiple opportunities to hear and use the high frequency word, preferably soon after the word is introduced.

Brain Area #2: Spelling

Just learning to read a high frequency word isn’t enough – we want the kids to learn to spell them, too!

Multi-sensory activities are great for spelling practice. (A multi-sensory activity incorporates more than one of the five senses.)

In the last section of this post, you’ll see some ideas for multi-sensory spelling practice activities.

Brain Area #3: Sounds

Students need to connect the letters in the word to the sounds that the letters make.

This is easier for words with regular spellings – like “much.” After students have been taught vocabulary words like “short vowel” and “digraph,” use these words when discussing the word. I might say to a student, “Much” is spelled M-U-C-H. What’s the vowel in this word?” (u) “What does the u say?” (/ŭ/) “There’s also a digraph in this word. The C and H work together to say /ch/. /m/ /ŭ/ /ch/. Much.”

What you say and ask about a word will depend upon how much students have learned. If a student doesn’t know what a vowel is, I’m not going to ask her to identify the vowel!

But my point is this: Connect the concepts that you’re teaching in phonics and phonological awareness to the high frequency words that you’re teaching. As much as possible, I match our high frequency words to the phonics patterns we’re studying that week.

Students need to connect the sounds in a word to the letters in the word. (This is sometimes called orthographic mapping.)

How should I teach high frequency words?

Like anything in education, there’s no one “right way” to do this. But I’ll share how we do it in my phonics program, From Sounds to Spelling.

This routine incorporates multi-sensory strategies and seeks to activate all 3 parts of the brain:

STEP 1: Present a written sentence to students that includes the target word. (If possible, I make the sentence personally meaningful to students by using their names or writing about something in our classroom. I also try to include words in the sentence that students would be able to decode.) Here’s an example from the Kindergarten program:

This is a high frequency word / sight word sentence that I use with my Kindergarten students. After we're done reading it, they can mix up the words and practice putting the sentence back in order!

You can certainly just write a sentence on the board, too! I only use the word cards with my Kindergarteners because they’re developing their understanding of the concept of a word.

Also, as an independent activity, I can mix up the words, place them in a plastic baggie, and have students put them back in order.

STEP 2: Have students come up with their own original sentences – orally. (After you model an example, they might turn and tell their sentence to a partner.)

STEP 3: Discuss the sounds in the word. Regardless of whether the word is regularly or irregularly spelled, we connect the sounds of the words to the letters.

I often use sound boxes as I do this.

Elkonin boxes or sound boxes can be used with high frequency words / sight words, too! They help students understand which letters work together to make one sound.

In this example, I might cover up the word and say, “Listen to this word. Does. What sounds do you hear?” Students should tell me /d/ /ŭ/ /z/. Then, I’d uncover the word and say the sounds, pointing to each letter or group of letters as I go: /d/ (point to the d) “/ŭ/” (point to the oe) “/z/” (point to the s)

What I say next would depend on what students have already learned. But I would probably ask, “Are there any surprising/tricky sounds?” Students should notice that the /ŭ/ sound for oe is surprising/tricky. I would point out that both vowels are in one box because they work together to make one sound (/ŭ/). Students should also notice that the /z/ sound for s is surprising. (However, they may already know that s can sometimes say /z/.)

Last, I might have them say the sounds while I point under the corresponding box.

This discussion happens pretty quickly. At first, it takes longer to go through this process. But as time goes on, students learn the routine and can do most of the work with connecting the sounds to letters.

STEP 4: “Tap out” the word. To make the spelling more memorable, students tap out the word on their arm while spelling it aloud. (This is a multi-sensory strategy.)

Here’s a quick informal video to show you how we do this:

STEP 5: Write the word. I like to make this part multi-sensory, too.

In this step, students are writing the word AND creating a “bumpy word” that they can trace with their finger.

There are different ways to do this, but I like to have students place a piece of paper on top of a knitting screen (like this one – Amazon affiliate link). They use a crayon to write the words. You can have them spell the word aloud as they write.

Looking for a simple multi-sensory activity for sight words? In this activity, we write on top of a knitting screen, using a crayon! Students need to go over the word several times. Then, they can trace it with their finger while spelling it aloud.

Then, once students have written it (have them go over the word 3 times), they can use a finger to trace over the word and spell it out loud. When they practice the word in the future, they can take out this sheet and trace the “bumpy word” while spelling the word aloud.

STEP 6: As long as time permits, have students write an original sentence with the word and read their sentence aloud to a partner. We usually skip this step at the Kindergarten level. (Also, if you find that you’re frequently running out of time for this step, you might skip Step 2 so you have more time for this.)

Those six steps are how I introduce a new high frequency word!

In addition to this process, in my program, 2nd graders also keep a personal dictionary / word book that they add words to. (1st graders and Kindergarteners could also do this if you like.) This is a great tool for them to use as they’re writing.

All of this sounds like a lot, right? At first, it is! But once students learn the routine, things move more quickly.

Where can I get materials for teaching high frequency words?

Right now, my phonics program is the only resource I have that covers high frequency words extensively.

Each week of the program, students work on words that have a certain sound or spelling pattern – and they also learn a few high frequency words (that may or may not follow the pattern).

The high frequency words in the program don’t match any one specific list (i.e. Dolch or Fry). They were derived from a few different resources and designed specifically to equip students with words that will be useful to them in their reading and writing.

I hope that this post was helpful to you! Did anything surprise you? How does this compare with how you learned to teach high frequency words? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

References

Blevins, W. (2017). A Fresh Look at Phonics, Grades K-2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Miles, K. P., Rubin, G. B., & Gonzalez-Frey, S. (2018, May). Rethinking Sight Words. The Reading Teacher, 71(6), 715-726.

Do you know the best ways to teach high frequency words? This blog post.

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Alison

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Welcome!

I’m Alison, a literacy specialist and Director of Curriculum and Instruction at my school. I love getting kids excited about reading and writing – and sharing teaching ideas with other teachers!

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