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How to Teach Heart Words

English often is referred to as a difficult language to learn to speak, read, and spell because of its irregular sound-spellings. However, contrary to this assumption, the English orthographic system is actually quite regular and reliable. Of course, there are exceptions, but not as many as teachers generally think. So, the relevant question for reading teachers is… If there are relatively few words with irregular sound-spellings, why spend so much instructional time on them when the great percentage of English words perfect match the spellings to their sounds are?

The answer, of course, is that many of these words with non-phonetic spellings are on the research-based high frequency Fry and Dolch word lists. In other words, beginning readers see these words in print much more often than their total numbers would suggest. In fact, a large percentage of the 100 highest frequency words derive from Old and Middle English, and those old sound-spellings remain. Read more about “the great vowel shift” and other interesting historical developments in my article, “English Language History.”

On the Reading Rockets website, Linda Farrell and Michael Hunter summarize their helpful study on the Dolch 220 list of high frequency words. Of the 220 words, 82 were identified as Heart Words (37%).  https://www.readingrockets.org/article/new-model-teaching-high-frequency-words

One helpful development from the Science of Reading movement has been the refinement of some reading instructional terminology. One such term that has come to some degree of consensus is Heart Words. A Heart Word is usually defined as a word with one or more irregular sound-spellings or an unusual sound-spelling pattern that has not yet been taught. One important point should be emphasized: In Heart Words, the whole word is not phonetically irregular; only a part or parts is irregular. In other words, “the parts to learn by heart.”

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. https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/should-we-teach-high-frequency-words/  
The good news is that most of the sound-spellings in Heart Words are largely regular in their sound-spellings.
Noted reading researcher, David Kilpatrick (2015), comments that “the vast majority of irregular words have only a single irregular letter-sound relationship.”
For example, the Heart Word, pretty, is the 97th most frequently used reading word. Of the five /p//r//e//t//y/ sounds, only one (the /e/) is irregular. The Heart Word, together, ranks #214. Of the six /t//o//g//e//th//er/sounds, only one (the /o/) is irregular.
As a baseball player, I remember my coach always counseling, “Look for the fast ball and adjust to the curve.” That’s the foundational principle of how to teach Heart Words. Look for the regular sound-spellings first and adjust to any irregular parts. In other words, follow the rules and adjust to the exceptions.
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 when they are recognized automatically by sight, and not any longer by sounding each phoneme (speech sound) out. Following are seven instructional methods I use in my reading intervention programs for students ages 8-adult to help student develop automaticity with the Heart Words.
 
How to Teach Heart Words
1. Blending
2. Segmenting
3. Spelling
4. Independent Heart Words practice
5. Decodable practice
6. Assess and target instruction! Download the FREE 108 High Frequency Heart Words Assessment at the end of this article to help you effectively differentiate instruction.
7. Game cards (not flash cards)

1. Blending: For each daily lesson, I’ve chosen two of my list of 108 high frequency Heart Words. I use Google slides to show the focus Heart Word with a heart or

Blending Heart Words hearts on top of the phonetically irregular sound-spelling(s). I slide my hand under the word on the in-class display or shared screen to blend with students. I blend the phonetically regular sound-spellings with the continuous blending technique, blending through the whole word with special attention to the stop and continuous sounds until I reach the non-phonetic part. I say, “STOP! This spelling does not follow the sound-spelling rules. We have to learn this part by heart.” I continue to blend the rest of the regular sound-spellings in the word. For example, to blend the word into, I blend through the continuous sounds of the in syllable (iinn) and follow with the stop sound /t/. At the “o” I say, “STOP! This spelling does not follow the sound-spelling rules. You have to learn this part by heart. The long /oo/ sound, as in rooster, can be spelled with an ‘o.’” Note: my phoneme-grapheme Animal Cards include a rooster card. for the long /oo/ sound-spelling.

2. Segmenting: In the next Google slide, I prompt students to tap their knees to count the number of phonemes in the focus Heart Word. The following slide givesHow to Segment Heart Words the answer and shows the Heart Word without hearts in a variety of fonts. As a weekly review, students use Sound Boxes for my spelling dictation of both the daily regular sound-spellings and the Heart Words. Students count and record the number of phonemes and type (or write if using a print copy) the “heart spellings.” After the segmenting slides, I show a slide that features three Heart Words with similar or comparable words. For example, with the focus Heart Word, into, this slide displays do, to, and tonight (each with hearts).

How to Spell Heart Words3. Spelling: All too often teachers focus on decoding without application to encoding. If I had to choose reading the Heart Word, into, ten times or spelling the word once. I would go with the spelling. Both reading and spelling are essential, but spelling is the key to developing automaticity and the acquisition of into as a sight word. In addition to the Sound Box spelling dictations, I have student spell each blending word immediately after blending on the next Google slide. Students use the squiggle tool to print (or pencil if you use print copies) and are guided by proper letter formation models.

4. Independent Heart Words Practice: After my Blending, Segmenting, and Spelling Activity, students completeHow to Practice Heart Words independent work (drag and drop and fill-in-the-text boxes with sounds to spelling matches, word sorts, and nonsense word practice along with audio files) with the lesson’s regular sound-spellings. After this slide, students work on the two lesson Heart Words. Students sort similar or comparable irregular sound-spellings to match the two focus Heart Words and open up doors on the Google slide to check their answers. Next, students identify the “parts to learn by heart” with similar or comparable Heart Words by dragging and dropping the hearts above the phonetically irregular sound-spellings (or they draw the hearts if using print copies).

Sam and Friends Phonics Books

5. Decodable Practice: In my 54 decodables, the Sam and Friends Phonics Books, each story includes plenty of practice in the lesson’s focus regular sound-spelling patterns and the two Heart Words. Plus, the back page includes a 30-second Word Fluency with built-in timer to practice these words and record the number of words read per timing.

6. Heart Words Assessment: In the second half of my full-year reading intervention program, I provide mid-year diagnostic assessments. One of the assessments tests mastery of the 108 high frequency Heart Words. This assessment will pinpoint the Heart Words that students cannot yet read and spell accurately. “If they know it, this (assessment) will show it; if they don’t, it won’t.” The assessment provides the data for teachers to differentiate instruction.

Heart Word Flash Cards7. Heart Words Game Cards: NOT FLASH CARDS. The teacher prints the 108 Heart Word Game Cards and distributes only those cards which the Heart Words Assessment has determined as yet-to-be-mastered for each student. For example, Ryan may get 48 cards and Selma only 22. These 108 Heart Word cards feature the irregular sound-spellings in red and list similar or comparable pattern words. One of my favorite Heart Word games from the program is Make ‘em Legal.

Make ‘em Legal

For this game, students pair up and each places one of their unknown Heart Words Game Cards on the desk or table. Each student uses their own set of Animal Cards, which feature the regular sound-spellings, to build a word around the Heart Word. For example, one of the students might select the into Heart Word Game Card. The “o” is printed in red because it is the irregular sound-spelling. That student might build the word, undo, around this Heart Word Game Card and lay out these cards left to right: Buffalo /short u/ – Newt /n/ – Dog /d/ – Heart Word Game Card into to form the word, undo.

The partner needs to find the phonetically regular sound-spelling on their Animal Cards to Make ‘em Legal, or correct, the phonetically irregular sound-spelling of the Heart Word Game Card, into. If the partner displays the rooster card, the partner wins a point, because rooster includes the legal sound-spelling of the long /oo/ sound. If the other partner can’t find the card to Make ‘em Legal, no point is awarded. Partners trade off, each using their own sets of Heart Words they need to master. Perfect differentiated, assessment-based instruction and… fun!

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. See all seven Heart Word Activities in action!

Get the Heart Words Assessment FREE Resource:

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