Most teachers I know, strive to make sure that their students are able to read “sight words” automatically. If you are a kindergarten through second grade teacher reading this, the previous statement makes sense to you. But does it really?

Let me explain. High frequency words are those common words that occur, well, frequently in printed text. There are many lists of high frequency words to choose from out there. Dolch words, Fry words – they are essentially lists of the same words. Most lists order the words by frequency, listing the words from the most frequent words that appear in print – the is the most common – to the less frequent – view is listed as word 1000 in the Fry list. Yes, since these words appear so frequently in print, composing up to 50% of written text, we want our students to have automatic access to these words while reading because it improves their reading fluency. Improved fluency can mean improved comprehension –our ultimate goal.

So once students can read high frequency words quickly and accurately, these words have joined an elite club; they are now sight words. A sight word is any word, not just a high frequency word, that is recognized and read upon sight. As you read this blog, every word you identify, or instantly decode, is a sight word for you and many of them are not high frequency words. What I am saying here, is that there IS a difference in our labeling of sight words and high frequency words. We want high frequency words to become sight words, but not all sight words are high frequency words.

Building a Sight Word Lexicon – The Contributions of Orthography and Meaning

The visual center of your language brain, is wired for the orthography, the spelling, of each word you can read instantly. And company to the miracle of instant decoding, is simultaneous access to meaning, if it is a word you know!

Herein lies the challenge. How do you attach meaning to of, was, or were? What is the meaning of these little words to a young student? How do we help students connect meaning to a common word like what or many? Linking the visual of a word to its meaning is essential to establishing the word as a sight word, but it’s tough to do because of the difficulty with attaching meaning to, or building a mental picture of, functional and glue words.

When we see a word in print, what we see kicks the reading process into action. The letters, every letter in a word, are interpreted as sound, and the sounds of the word stimulate meaning.

The point I need to make here is that even when we read a word instantly, we have decoded it. A written word mandates decoding to translate it to the language we know and understand. Decoding is reading a word grapheme by grapheme and blending the phonemes to say a word, decoding is also instant word reading – quick efficient decoding obviously is our goal.

High frequency words have gotten a bad rap over the years. They are referred to as words that don’t play fair, words we cannot “sound out.” To be sure, several of these words have unique spellings that defy the application of common grapheme phoneme connections. Some examples of these are: of, were, was, to, one. Add to these unusual spellings the fact that the words do not have a concrete meaning to be visualized and connected to the written word, makes these words tough to learn. Since these words do not apply a common letter sound relationship the letter sequences need to be memorized. However, many more high frequency words CAN be sounded out; they do follow standard grapheme phoneme rules.

Teaching Tips – High Frequency Words

When planning our high frequency words instruction, our instruction needs to address these questions:

  • How do we build the orthographic memory of the word?
  • How do we include word meaning?
  • How do we provide multiple opportunities, extended practice, for students to read the word?

Orthographic Memory and Meaning

Determine whether the words you are teaching are regular (can be decoded) or irregular (do not follow a regular pattern or cannot be decoded). Group the words accordingly. You will use different techniques to build orthographic memories for the two categories.

Regular Words

  • Note which words can be grouped by spelling and sound: why, by, fly, my, shy, cry – are all regular words, open syllables, and share the same vowel spelling Y and phoneme /ie/. Add to the list as the words are introduced.
  • Explain the spelling-sound relationships in the words. “When you see a Y at the end of a one syllable word, you will say /ie/.” Demonstrate how to sound out the words.
  • When you sound out and blend a word, demonstrate how the word is used in sentences. Ask students to use the word in a sentence and to look at the word and touch the word when they say it.
  • Tell students that they will see these words a lot when they are reading and they need to be able to read them quickly.
  • Ask students to write the words, and to write sentences using the words.


Irregular Words

  • Present the word in isolation, write it and read it for the student.
  • Present the word in context, use it in a sentence. Ask students to use the word in spoken sentences. Always point to the written word when saying the word.
  • If there are letter sounds in the word that are dependable, /s/ and /d/ in said, for example, point these out. Tell students they do not have to memorize these parts of the word.
  • Point out the letter(s) in the word that the students will have to memorize to help them remember the word.
  • Direct students to read sentences that use the word.
  • Ask students to write the word, saying letter names not the sounds as they spell.

Extended Practice

Bottom line, reading words in isolation is only part of the challenge. These nebulous words that lack concrete meanings need to be read within sentences, sentences that mirror the students’ oral syntax and language. And LOTS of this reading needs to happen over a long period of time!

  • Direct students to say and write sentences using the words they are learning.
  • Use fluency drills – read the words over and over.
  • Provide decodable texts that use the high frequency words multiple times.
  • Provide a key sentence dictated by the student on the backs of flashcards. Student reads the word and then reads the sentence, or the other way around.
  • Students sort their words into two piles: one pile they can read the word really fast. The second pile, the words they have to think about before reading. The teacher checks by asking the student to reread their words while resorting the words.

We want all words to become sight words eventually. This will happen over time with lots of strong instruction on how to decode words and providing lots of reading practice with appropriate leveled text – miles on the page!