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Which High Frequency Words?

Most teachers and reading specialists advocate some teaching of high frequency words: the question is which ones make sense to teach and which ones don’t make sense to teach?

First, let’s dispel a few notions about how we learn to read. It’s not a which came first, the chicken or the egg? question some still suggest. In other words, the end result is not all that matters. Witness the plethora of reading intervention classes in upper elementary and middle schools to see how many of our students can “read,” but not understand what they are “word calling.” How we get to the end result does matter. Reading does not teach phonemic awareness, nor does reading teach phonics and multi-syllabic decoding. These are prerequisite skills which students need in order to to read well.

We have plenty of reading research to positively assert that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is the most efficient approach to teaching beginning and remedial readers. The Look-Say Method of the Dick and Jane readers (sight words only instruction) and the Onset-Rime Method (b-ack, h-ack, j-ack, l-ack, p-ack, r-ack, s-ack, t-ack) have largely been placed on the dustbin of instructional approaches.

However…

We can certainly take things too far. We know some things, but we don’t know a lot of things about reading. We are only at the beginning stages of brain research.

So…

A prudent approach to both beginning and remedial reading instruction is to focus on decoding (phonics) and encoding (spelling) instruction and practice, but to also “throw in” a healthy dose of fluency practice with high frequency words.

Which High Frequency Words Not to Teach and Why

Don’t pass out flashcards or lists of high frequency reading or spelling words for students to memorize. Intuitively, it would seem to make sense to have students memorize the words that they are going to read or spell most often. However, our gut-level instincts lead us astray here.

  • The Dolch and Fry word lists of the most commonly used words in basal readers were never designed to provide a list of words to study. Countless U.S. classrooms still, unfortunately, have these reading goals (and assign parents the task of teaching): 10 words by the end of kindergarten; 100 words by the end of first grade; 200 words by the end of second grade; and 300 words by the end of third grade. As a reading specialist, I’ve worked with hundreds of elementary, middle school, high school, and even community college students who can word call each of these lists, but not read with comprehension. Now, there is some sense to pre-teaching a limited number of high frequency words before beginning systematic phonics instruction.
  • Similarly, the Slosson Oral Word Reading Test and San Diego Quick Assessment were only designed to test word recognition and they do provide correlations to reading comprehension, but authors Richard L. Slosson and Charles L. Nicholson, as well as Margaret La Pray and Ramon Ross respectively, never advocated using their random sample assessments as instructional tools.
  • The “No Excuse” spelling word lists, floating around since Rebecca Sitton popularized this band aid approach to spelling mastery during the height of the whole language movement of the 1980s and 1990s still, unfortunately, serves as the entire spelling program for countless U.S. classrooms with absolutely no research validating its instructional validity.

Which High Frequency Words to Teach and Why

The first group of high frequency words are, indeed, words; the second and third groups are word parts.

  • Heart Words: These words include one or more non-phonetic parts, also known as “the parts to learn by heart.” Or Heart Words may also designated as those sound-spelling patterns not yet taught, such as the “_ve” pattern with words such as live, love, and have. Check out how to teach Heart Words.

Get the Heart Words Assessment FREE Resource:

  • Word Families (Rimes): A rime is a vowel and the final consonants in one syllable, such as “ack.” The rime usually follows an first consonant, e.g. “b,” or consonant blend, e.g. “tr,” to form words, e.g., “back” or “track.” Students apply these to other starting consonants (called onsets) to recognize or say new words. By the end of second grade, students should know every one of these 79 word families with automaticity through explicit, systematic phonics instruction. If they don’t, gap fill with flashcard practice and activities to help students master the rimes. I have found plenty of success teaching the word families that students do not know with sound-spelling blending. Again, the focus is remedial, not instructional, with the rimes.
  • High Frequency Greek and Latin Prefixes and Roots: Greek and Latin word parts make up over 50% of the words in the dictionary. Some are decodable in English, and some are not. Because of the strong reading-vocabulary connection, it does make sense to have students teach and practice the Greek and Latin high frequency prefixes and suffixes which they do not know. Like with rimes, the analogous relationships formed by morphological (meaning-based) word parts make this a sound sight words instructional focus. For example,  bi means two in bicycle, just as it means two in bicameral or biped.

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 and evidence-based, the program features the 54 Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables for each lesson and designed for older students. The digital and print word recognition activities and decodables are also available as a half-year (or 30 minutes per day) option in The Science of Reading Intervention Program. Both programs include the easy-to-teach, interactive 5 Daily Google Slide Activities.

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

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