Why I've Thrown Out My Sight Word Flash Cards
High-frequency words (common words) used to be called "sight words". In the past, these most commonly occurring words were taught by encouraging children to learn them solely by visual recognition (memorisation). Sight word practice, using Dolch word lists or Fry word lists, was the primary way that kindergarten students and first grade students were taught to read unfamiliar words. The premise of sight word practice was that if students encountered irregular words frequently enough, they would memorise them. The objective of rote memorisation tasks was for students to effortlessly and automatically read these 'sight words'.
The problem with this: whilst rote memorisation can work for some children, it doesn’t work for all. Even with repeated exposure, many students have difficulty retaining these words in their memory.
Heart Word Magic -The Most Effective Way
Luckily, there is a better way that doesn't rely on dolch words or fry lists! Science of reading research has revealed that young readers acquire reading skills through a process known as orthographic mapping. Cognitive scientists have established that during this process, the brain establishes connections between the sounds (phonemes) and the written symbols (graphemes) in a word. Through orthographic mapping, students can transform an unfamiliar word into a "sight word," which can be readily retrieved from memory.
According to Dr David Kilpatrick, "orthographic mapping is the process we use to permanently store words into long term memory."
In a nutshell, this means that in order to ensure that early readers retain words with irregular sounds, it is essential to focus on sound-symbol relationships and assist students in linking the individual sounds to the corresponding symbols that represent those sounds.
As a result, educators are shifting their instructional approach when it comes to teaching high-frequency words with irregular spellings. Rather than focusing on whole word recognition, they are utilising best practice through phonemic awareness and explicit phonics instruction. And rather than relying on rote memorisation of unfamiliar words, they are employing the heart word method.
The heart word method involves drawing upon existing phonics skills and teaching students to identify the heart part of the word. This is the irregular spelling that we need to learn by heart. Typically, a word will only contain one or two irregular spelling patterns. Many words are in fact temporary heart words - once students learn more phonics rules, phonics patterns and letter combinations, many tricky words will eventually become a decodable word
When teaching kids new tricky words, the orthographic mapping process (also known as phoneme-grapheme mapping) involves the following steps:
1. Say the entire word
2. Rather than focus on the whole words, focus on the individual parts of the word by tapping out the sounds.
3. Write the word in sound boxes - one sound (phoneme) per box.
4. Identify decodable parts of the word, and the irregular part or irregular parts of the word - students might circle this tricky part or draw a little heart over the tricky part
5. They might then write this word out a few times and/or put the word into a sentence.
The best part? Orthographic mapping has been proven to be significantly more efficient and effective compared to the method of simple memorisation.
When relying on rote memorisation alone, it can take as many as 500 repetitions for a child to learn a particular word. However, through the process of orthographic mapping, children typically grasp and retain the word after practising it only 1-5 times. This demonstrates the remarkable effectiveness of orthographic mapping in facilitating reading success! It really is a far more effective way to teach beginning readers how to read!
Here's an example of this process in action (using my free heart word mapping mats).
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. I am now no longer comfortable using dolch or fry sight word flashcards in my phonics lessons. These flashcards (often displayed on a word wall and sorted according to their first letter) do not focus on explicit instruction of each letter-sound correspondence in a word.
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 this heart word resource will be a helpful support! There are over 200 high-frequency heart words and flash words, with a heart above the irregular sound-spelling pattern/s in each word.
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 categorised into two groups: flash words and heart words. Flash words are high-frequency words that have regular spellings, including CVC words and CVCC/CCVC words such as "went," "am," "can," and "did." These words can be easily decoded phonetically, but the goal is for students to recognise them instantaneously, hence the term "flash."
According to Reading Rockets, approximately 63% (138 words) of the Dolch 220 List can be decoded using regular spelling patterns. Once students have acquired the decoding skills for these words, they possess the ability to read them. However, given how frequently these words appear in texts, it can be beneficial to periodically review these words to ensure automaticity.
On the other hand, heart words are words with a challenging aspect that requires memorisation. This challenge may arise from irregular or uncommon spellings, or from spelling patterns that have not been taught yet. Examples of heart words include "said," "are," and "where." According to Reading Rockets, approximately 37% (82 words) of the Dolch Sight Words contain Heart Letters, which represent the irregularly spelled parts of the words.
It is important to note that heart words can eventually become flash words once students have learned the corresponding spelling patterns. For instance, "see," "for," and "day" can transition from heart words to flash words as students acquire the necessary knowledge of spelling patterns.
High Frequency Word List - when to teach what?!
There is indeed an abundance of "sight word" programs and lists available, but many of them lack solid research support. However, you can rest assured as I've got you covered!
I have curated eight sets of high-frequency word lists, carefully organised in terms of increasing complexity. Each list of high frequency words will assist you in:
Planning a logical sequence for introducing high-frequency words.
Grouping words with similar spellings together, enabling you to teach related words concurrently. For example, words like 'have', 'give' and 'live' can be taught as a group.
Reviewing high-frequency "flash" words. These words follow consistent, decodable patterns but are still worth reinforcing due to their frequent usage. The objective is for students to recognise these words effortlessly and swiftly.
By utilising these comprehensive word lists, you'll have a valuable resource to enhance your teaching of high-frequency words, ensuring a structured and effective approach.
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?
To learn more, you might like to read this blog post: Teaching high frequency words in Kindergarten.
I have a wide range of high-frequency word resources and heart word game cards 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 @mrslearningbee on Instagram.
You might also like to check out The Hive's revolutionary word builder tool! Not only can you use this online tool with your little learners to map any words in the english language (you can display as many phonemes as you wish depending on your grade level), but you can also use 'enable heart words' and drag the heart over the irregular spelling patterns within the word. There are loads of fun ways to incorporate this amazing resource into your classroom on the daily basis, so if you'd like to take a closer look, head to The Hive to find out more!