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High Frequency Words

They come under the veil of all sorts of names: high frequency words, sight words, heart words.  Whatever we call them, their definition remains relatively the same.  These words are a bit like the “popular kids” back in your high school days – these are words you see a lot, recognize immediately, and seem to be just about everywhere.

What Are High Frequency Words?

High frequency words are exactly what they sound like – words that are used very frequently in reading and writing.  We divide them into two categories: phonetically decodable words and irregular spellings.  

Phonetically decodable words are often referred to as flash words – words that you need to know in a flash.  These are words that come easy and hardly take any thought at all to read them (the, and, with). The high frequency words that have irregular spellings are often referred to as heart words – words you need to know by heart and simply memorize because they do not follow regular phonics patterns (said, was, some).  Some parts of these irregular words can be sounded out, but other parts cannot.

Teaching Sight Words in Small Group

chart to help students with sight words

We hear it time and time again – reading instruction must be explicit, so small groups are a perfect environment for teaching high frequency words.  Memorizing these words does in fact work for some kids – but certainly not all of them.  When this is the case, it’s essential to tie it in with your phonics instruction.

But even before phonics instruction begins, you can absolutely teach a select handful of sight words.  These “beginning” sight words are: the, a, I, to, and, was, for, you, is, of.  These words are a great start for when students are just starting their reading journey.  But where to begin? Below is a list of short activities you can do with your small group as they’re learning all sorts of high frequency words.

Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping.  Before we go into this, I want to introduce you to the concept of orthographic mapping.  Orthographic mapping is the mental process of how our brains forever store sight words in our heads.  We map the sounds of words, spell them out, and then store them in our brains as sight words – words we can recognize immediately.  It’s an incredible process, and activities like phoneme-grapheme mapping can help encourage this thought process.

If the sight words can be sounded out (can, him, with, yes), phoneme-grapheme mapping is a great way to promote orthographic mapping.  With phoneme-grapheme mapping, students focus on the sounds a letter makes and its relationship to the letter.  It’s a fantastic, kinesthetic way to learn as students build each word.  Here’s how it works:

  • Students are given a word and discuss its meaning
  • Students are given sound boxes and map out the sounds (phonemes) of the word with manipulatives (unifix cubes, mini erasers, magnets, etc.)
  • Then, students use the same sound box below to spell out the word

 A solid foundation of phonemic awareness is essential when phoneme-grapheme mapping, as it will help students understand the relationship between the sound letter (or groups of letters).  After you’ve practiced and graphed the word a few times, always practice reading in isolation, repeated reading, and in context!  Be sure to find short stories or sentences with these high frequency words you’re studying.

Heart Words  

As stated above, heart words are words that must be learned by heart.  These are the “rule breakers” of the high frequency words, as they don’t follow normal phonics patterns.  Take, for example, the word said.  We can sound out the /s/ and even the /d/, but the letters ai break the rules by their /ĕ/sound.  But this is no problem!  A great way to practice heart words is by graphing them, just like above.  Only with heart words, a small heart goes above the portion of the word that doesn’t follow the rules.  So, with our word said, students write it out with a small heart above the ai that tells them, “This letter (or in this case, group of letters) doesn’t say its usual sound.”

Teacher, Teacher, What Do You See? 

Turn the classic book that everyone loves, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, into a fun game!  Simply write 5-10 sight words on the board that you’re focusing on as a class.  Have the class say, “Teacher, Teacher, what do you see?” And reply with, “I see readers looking at me!”  Just like on the last page of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, you will point to each word as students say them out loud.  Snag this free resource called I See Readers Looking at Me (and tons of other stuff) in my Free Resource Library!

How Can Students Demonstrate Mastery?

find high frequency words in sentences

Now, all of these activities are well and good, but how can we ensure that students are masters of sight words?  There are a plethora of ways that students can demonstrate mastery after you’ve done all sorts of fun activities to make them stick.  Here are a few of my favs:

  • Find the word in a list of words:  This can simply be done on paper with them in neat rows (or all scrambled together), or on a marker board.
  • Find the word in a text:  Fluency passages and decodable readers are great for this.  Have students circle, underline, or highlight high frequency words you’ve been practicing.
  • Read the word from flashcards: I know, I know.  Sometimes we hear that flashcards are a big “no no.” Personally, I don’t feel that’s the case!  There’s a time and place for flashcards, and they’re actually a great way to review high frequency words students are already familiar with.  They provide great structure and are an effective drill after students have already learned the sight word.
  • Spell the word: They can do this in a variety of ways, from phoneme boxes to spelling tests to quizzing each other during partner work.  The repetition of saying the word, spelling the word, and seeing it written out is a very effective way to demonstrate word knowledge.

Connecting All Parts of Literacy

Now, how exactly do we connect all of these moving parts of literacy?  It’s important to touch on each one of them as readers embark on their journey.  Don’t feel as if you need to do it all, all at once.  While they’re learning a few high frequency words, remember to focus on aspects of phonemic awareness and phonics.  These can (and should) be taught in conjunction with one another in harmony.  Each one will lend itself to learning the other.

Just as it’s essential to explicitly teach students how sounds in words work (phonemic awareness) and how those sounds connect to letters (phonics), it’s important to remember to sprinkle high frequency words in there, too.  Combining these two will encourage students to apply their phonemic awareness and phonics skills to learning high frequency words.  This will also ensure success when they get to actual phrases, sentences, passages, and books.

When you’re in charge of all of these moving pieces as you’re teaching kids how to read, it’s hard to not feel like a ringleader in a circus.  But there’s no need!  When you’re feeling overwhelmed or not sure where to begin, visuals on where to begin and also where you’ll eventually end up is helpful.  So, here’s the general progression when you’re combining all of these moving pieces:


high frequency words progression

One important thing to note while you’re looking at this progression:  studies show that you only need a portion of letter names and sounds before you can begin phonemic awareness instruction.  Contrary to what one may think, there’s actually no need to wait for students to become masters of all letter names and sounds before beginning explicit PA instruction.  The sooner phonemic awareness instruction is introduced, the better!

Literacy has so many moving parts.  As teachers, we’re told to work on sight words until mastery but also focus on phonics skills.  We’re told to hone in on fluency, but also be sure students have strong vocabulary and comprehension skills.  When we look at all we have to do, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.  

But I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to feel this way.  The sooner we accept that literacy is all-encompassing and that each part has importance, the sooner we can be less intimidated by all we have to do.  One of the beautiful aspects of teaching literacy is that we as teachers get to have a hand in their reading journey that will set them up for lifetime success.  Instead of feeling intimidated by that prospect, I implore you to feel encouraged and invigorated by it – because you can do it!


Still Unsure of Where to Start?

If you’re still not sure about where to begin, check out my Phonics and Phonemic Awareness blog post, as well as my Reading Intervention Mats that can help you get started!  This activity is quick for you to prepare and quick for students to learn!

Aylin Claahsen

Aylin Claahsen

Providing resources and support to engage all readers.

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Hi, I'm Aylin!

I’m so happy you’re here! I’m a certified reading specialist who loves talking all things literacy. I have a huge passion for providing resources and support to engage all readers!


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