Teaching High-Frequency Words

Teaching high-frequency words to young children is an important building block in the development of language acquisition and reading comprehension. It helps students build their vocabulary and slowly develop their spelling skills. 

For many years, high-frequency words (also known as sight words) have been taught through rote memorization. However, reading teachers and experts in linguistics have found a new way to teach high-frequency words.

Current Practices

One of the traditional strategies for teaching high-frequency words is to have the students copy lists of words and making the students memorize them. Another way would be to have students do practice drills using flashcards.

These strategies have worked in the past, but these have been found to be somewhat lacking. It does not encourage a deep understanding of the sounds and spelling of words and does not make accommodations for students who have difficulties with memorizing. Another problem with this memorization approach is that the teaching of high-frequency words is treated as a separate process from phonics instruction. However, it has been found that incorporating high-frequency words into phonics instruction is quite effective.

Flash Words and Heart Words

Studies have shown that students can make sense of spelling patterns when high-frequency words are incorporated in phonics lessons instead of having them memorize the words without context.

This is done by categorizing the words into those that are regularly spelled (flash words) and those that aren’t (heart words). Flash words are spelled regularly and therefore easily decodable. These are used so often that students should be able to read and spell them “in a flash.” Heart words are those that are spelled irregularly and need to be spelled automatically.

Teaching Strategies

Integrating high-frequency words into phonics lessons helps students to make sense of spelling patterns for these words. To begin, teachers will teach 10-15 high-frequency words before teaching phonics, but only after the students master all letter names. The words will be put in a list and posted in the classroom at a spot where they can easily be seen by everyone.

One word will be introduced at a time in the order listed to minimize confusion for the students. You will know that students know these words when they can find them in a text, read them from a card, and spell them correctly.

Teaching Heart Words might require more steps because they are not easily grouped by spelling. Heart Words can be incorporated into phonics instruction once students learn the Flash Words.

A New Teaching Strategy

To teach a phonics-based model for teaching high-frequency words effectively, teachers and subject coordinators should ideally work together to streamline the teaching process. Written below is one recommendation:

  1. Form a group of kindergarten and first-grade teachers to compile a list of high-frequency words classified into Heart Words and Flash Words by spelling patterns
  1. The committee will see to it that high-frequency words fit into the scope and sequence of phonics lessons

Note: Some schools use the traditional reading curricula that must be strictly followed, which may leave little to no opportunity to try the new model. Fortunately, the phonics-based model can be implemented partially. To do this, teachers will start by introducing the sight words as prescribed by the curriculum and categorize each word into Flash Words and Heart Words. These words will be taught by showing the letter-sound relationships and grouping together the words that have similar spelling.

Final Thoughts

A phonics-based model to teaching high-frequency words is a different approach that can be used when working with students who have difficulty with memorization. This approach, compared to plain memorization, allows students to understand the relationship between the spelling and the sound of the words and will likely lessen spelling mistakes.

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