Heart Words - Why I've Thrown Out My Sight Word Flash Cards

Heart Words - Why I've Thrown Out My Sight Word Flash Cards

I've thrown out my sight word flash cards, and here's why!

High-frequency words have often been referred to as “sight words” and previously these words were taught by encouraging children to simply learn them by sight. The belief was, if students saw a word enough times, they would learn it. The goal was for students to read these ‘sight words’ automatically, and they were traditionally taught to do this through rote memorisation.

The problem with this: whilst rote memorisation has worked for some children, it doesn’t work for all. Many students struggle to remember these tricky words, even after repeated exposure to the words.

Let's use our phones as an analogy...

In order to remember enough words to be successful readers, we would need to store between 30 000-70 000 words (pictures) in our brains. Think about when we need to clear storage from our phones – the first things that we clear are photos and videos, as these take up the most room. The same concept applies to reading – there is simply not enough room in our brains to store all of the words that we need to be successful readers!

There needs to be a more efficient way. And luckily - there is!

The Solution: Orthographic Mapping

Research has in fact demonstrated that children learn to read through a process called orthographic mapping. This is where the brain maps (connects) the sounds (phonemes) to the letters (graphemes) in a word. Orthographic mapping allows students to take an unfamiliar word and turn it into a ‘sight word’. This is where a sight word can be immediately retrieved from the brain. 

Therefore, in order for tricky words to truly stick, we have to help children connect the sounds to the symbols that represent those sounds. For this reason, educators are shifting their approach to teaching high-frequency words with irregular spellings. You may often hear these words now referred to as ‘tricky words’ or ‘heart words’ because they have an irregular part that we need to know by heart. Here's an example of this process in action (using my free heart word mapping mats). 

Orthographic mapping is far more efficient and effective than simply memorising words. With rote-memorisation, it can take up to 500 repetitions for a child to learn that word. With orthographic mapping, children will typically learn the word after practising it just 1-5 times.

Shifting our teaching practice

Just as we want our kids to become life-long learners, we too must be life-long learners. As teachers and educators, we are always learning, always growing, always improving. And when we know better, we do better.

These heart word cards have been created because I am no longer comfortable using traditional ‘sight word’ flash cards. If you are feeling the same, I hope that these will be a helpful support! There are over 200 high-frequency heart words and flash words, and they are available for FREE in the Freebee Library - click the image below to access. 

Heart Words & Flash Words - what's the difference?

High-frequency words can be separated into two categories: words that are phonetically decodable, and words with irregular spellings.

Flash Words

Flash words are high-frequency words with regular spellings e.g. went, am, can, did. These words can be easily sounded out (decoded) but we want students to know these words ‘in a flash’. According to Reading Rockets, 138 words (63%) of the Dolch 220 List are decodable, when all regular spelling patterns are considered.

Once students have learned how to decode these words, they have the skills in order to be able to read them. However, due to their frequency in texts, quick review of these words can be helpful.

Heart Words

Heart words are words with a tricky part which we have to learn by heart. These ‘tricky’ parts are either irregular/rare spellings, OR spelling patterns that have not yet been taught. Some examples include ‘said, ‘are’ and ‘where’. According to Reading Rockets, 82 words (37%) of the Dolch 220 list have Heart Letters, which are the irregularly spelled part of the word.

It is important to note that heart words can become flash words, once students have learned the spelling patterns e.g. see, for, day.

When to teach what?!

There are so many “sight word” programs and sets of lists, but many are flawed and not backed by research. Don’t worry - I’ve got you covered!

I have compiled 8 sets of high-frequency word lists, with increasing complexity, which will help you to:

  • Plan a logical order for introducing high-frequency words
  • Group words with similar spellings together (e.g. teach is, was, as, his, has together)
  • Review high-frequency “flash” words — words which follow logical decodable patterns but are worth consolidating due to how frequently they are used. We want students to recognise these words “in a flash”.


This free resource is by no means perfect. I have umm-ed and ahh-ed over these lists for so long (there were post-its and spreadsheets galore) and there will always be pros/cons to any order. But, I was guided by which words kids will encounter the most frequently (these feature in the early lists) and then, where possible, tried to group words with similar spelling patterns together.

Please use, adapt or adjust to suit your own student and school needs… but I hope these lists are a useful tool and helpful starting point!

Looking to find out more?

I have a wide range of high-frequency word resources including explicit teaching PowerPoints, posters, and consolidation activities. Click here to see them!

And for more tips, tricks and practical advice for implementing evidence-based phonics practices in your classroom, follow @misslearningbee on Instagram.