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Should We Teach High Frequency Words?

Should We Teach High Frequency Words?

High Frequency Words?

As a teacher-publisher, I am a member of quite a few Facebook groups, Pinterest groups, etc. I sell my ELA and reading intervention curriculum on my Pennington Publishing site as well on the monolith: Teachers Pay Teachers. The latter provides a Seller’s Forum, which I infrequently visit.

A seller recently posted this topic:

Sight words – Fry or Dolch? 

I have always used the Dolch list, but notice many people using the Fry list in their products.  Does your school mandate a certain one?  Do you have a preference when looking for sight word materials?

This brings up an important topic. Both the Fry and Dolch lists are high frequency word lists. Each list was developed pre-computer age by groups of grad students counting the number of recurring words in basal readers.

Speaking of the English, teachers in the United Kingdom and many in international schools refer to the high frequency words as “tricky words.” American teachers have generally coined the term “sight words” to refer to high frequency words. This term has some important instructional implications.

Should We Teach Students High Frequency Words to Improve Reading and Spelling?

My take is that teaching (or more likely practicing and testing) long lists of high frequency reading words or using them in spelling instruction is counterproductive. Apologies to Rebecca Sitton, whose list of “No Excuse Spelling Words” still graces the classroom walls of thousands of American teachers’ classrooms. Why is it counterproductive? We need to teach students to rely on the code for reading and spelling. Just as in baseball, we need to teach students to “look for the fastball, but adjust for the curve.” In other words, apply the rule, but adjust for exceptions.

Memorizing lists of 200, 300, 400, 500 high frequency words treats language acquisition as a process of rote learning and viewing each and every word in isolation. This approach falsely teaches students that every reading and spelling word is an exception. The old Dick and Jane look-say method of reading and spelling instruction has been properly relegated to the instructional dumpster; however, high frequency instruction remains a hold-out to some degree. Why is this so? My take is because “Let’s teach the words students will read and write most often” seems intuitively correct. However, intuition is not science and should not guide our instructional decisions.

But What about High Frequency Words with Non-Phonetic Sound-Spellings?

Included within the lists of high frequency words are a subset of words with non-phonetic parts. I call the 108 (plus or minus depending on list and how one counts inflections) words with non-phonetic spellings, Heart Words; others refer to them as “rule-breakers,” irregular words,” “outlaw words,” “tricky words,” “memory words,” and others. Of the 100 highest frequency English words, many are non-phonetic because they derive from Old English.

Most reading specialists would agree that the Heart Words should be introduced concurrently with explicit, systematic phonics instruction. For example, I introduce the 108 highest frequency Heart Words two at a time in my 54 Sam & Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books.

Many of these Heart Words may have unusual spelling patterns, but as students acquire more reading and spelling knowledge, they find that some words initially learned as Heart Words have the same unusual spelling pattern as others. When we teach these “rule breakers,” we need to show students how many of them belong to the same patterns. For example, the Heart Word, one, has similar patterns as the Dolch words: some (30), come (64), and done (180). The more we show the patterns of the English orthographic system, the easier it is for beginning readers to map these words to their orthographic memories. These words can become immediately recognizable in reading and far easier to spell once they reach the level of sight word automaticity.

Researchers Linda Farrell and Michael Hunter completed a study on the Dolch 220 list of high frequency words. Of the 220 words, 82 were identified as Heart Words (37%), and 45 of the words can be studied in similar pattern words.  https://www.readingrockets.org/article/new-model-teaching-high-frequency-words

Reading specialists do disagree about which words would be classified as Heart Words. Although the reading research is clear that memorizing whole words, such as in the outdated “Look and Say” approach, is inefficient, some reading teachers stress that teaching students to remember whole words is important as a part of orthographic mapping. In orthographic mapping, students are wiring the brain to remember all of the sound-spellings of a word in order as a unified whole. These become true “sight words,” because they are recognized automatically by sight, and not any longer by sounding each phoneme (speech sound) out. For example, students might be taught that the Heart Word the is “not all irregular.” In other words, the “th” /th/ follows the rules; it’s only the “e” that does not. It is “the part to learn by heart.” Plus, when used before words beginning with vowels, the the is perfectly regular because the “e” makes the long /e/ sound for example, thē army and thē elephants in most regional dialects.

Check out my article on How to Teach Heart Words for seven activities to do so.

A sound box is often used to help students map heart Words, because they require more instruction than phonetically regular words.

Outlaw Word Sound Boxes

Sound Boxes

*Sight words assessments (also referred to as word recognition, e.g. The Slosson Oral Reading Test) shouldn’t be confused with instruction.

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Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Teaching Reading Strategies (Intervention Program) is designed for non-readers or below grade level readers ages eight–adult. This full-year, 55 minutes per day program provides both word recognition and language comprehension instructional resources (Google slides and print). Affordable, easy-to- teach, and science of reading-based, featuring the Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables designed for older students. The word recognition activities and decodables are also available as a half-year option in The Science of Reading Intervention Program.

PREVIEW TEACHING READING STRATEGIES and THE SCIENCE OF READING INTERVENTION PROGRAM RESOURCES HERE

Get the Heart Words Assessment FREE Resource:

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