How Heart Words are challenging traditional ideas about how to teach Kindergarten sight words.
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 new 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. You may have heard of Dolch words or the Fry sight word list as common lists for kindergarten sight words, as for many decades, these were commonly considered as the best way to teach sight words to kindergarten students and other little learners.
The problem with this model of sight word instruction: whilst rote memorisation has worked for some young readers when teaching sight words, it doesn’t work for all. Many students struggle to remember these tricky high frequency words, even after repeated exposure to the words. Without a strong focus on phonics skills, many students will struggle to develop strong reading skills and become fluent readers and accurate spellers, even if they engage in regular sight word practice and high-frequency word games.
Let's use our phones as an analogy...
In order to remember enough words to be successful readers, we would need to store between 30-70 000 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!
A new model for teaching high frequency words
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- automatic word recognition. 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.
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.
The Orthographic Mapping Process
In order to successfully map words, students must have the ability to orally segment a word, as well as some knowledge of letter-sounds. Orthographic mapping is a great way to improve your phonics lessons in order to help students to become more confident readers and writers.
1. Say the word and tap the sounds in the word. How many sounds altogether?
Show boxes/circles to represent each sound. No letters (graphemes) at this point.
2. Discuss the sounds
- The first sound in ‘said’ is /s/. Touch the first dot or box.
- The second sound in ‘said’ is /e/. Touch the second dot or box.
- The third sound in ‘said’ is /d/. Touch the third dot or box.
3. Map the word
Discuss which letters make each of the regular sound.
- The first sound is /s/. What letter do we use to spell ‘s’?
- The last sound is /d/. What letter do we use to spell ‘d’?
- The middle sound is /e/ but we don’t use the letter ‘e’ to spell this sound. We use the digraph ‘ai’.
This is where students may draw a little heart over the tricky part of the word.
4. Discuss any words with similar spellings (if possible) and/or reasons why that particular spelling is used.
Different categories of high-frequency words
High-frequency words can be separated into two categories: words which are phonetically decodable, and words with irregular spellings.
Flash words are high-frequency words with regular spellings e.g. CVC words such as did, can, get or other words such as went, am, it. 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 children's books, quick review of these words can be helpful.
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, 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.
Which common words to teach, and when?
There are so many “sight word” programs, kindergarten words and other sets of sight word lists, but many are flawed and not backed by research.
But don’t worry - I’ve got you covered!
I have compiled my own scope of grade level common words. My 8 sets of high frequency word lists, with increasing complexity will help you to:
- Plan a logical order for introducing high-frequency words
- Group words with similar spellings together (e.g. could, should, would)
- 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”.
My high frequency word lists have been compiled with the following considerations:
- Lists of the 100, 200 and 300 most common words in the English language
- Where possible, grouping words with similar spellings
- Rare/irregular spellings
Any of the top 100 high-frequency words (as determined by the Dolch sight words and Fry lists) will be found within Lists 1-4, along with other words that contain similar spelling patterns. Any easily decodable words (e.g. can, am) have been excluded.
Lists 5-8 contain words from the top 200 or 300 high-frequency word lists, as well as words with highly irregular or rare spelling patterns.
Please note that these are simply a suggested sequence for teaching high words. Feel free to adapt and adjust to suit the needs of your students and/or your school’s phonics program. But my hope is that they are a useful guide for creating your own kindergarten sight word list, or lists for older grades as well.
You might also like to download my free editable Heart Word flash cards.
Other top tips for grouping high frequency words
1. Sort words according to spelling patterns, rather than themes. Begin with the decodable words e.g. short a (am, can, at), short u (us, but), short i (him, in, it)
2. Where possible, link to spelling patterns that students have learned, or are currently learning. E.g. if teaching the short 'oo' sound, you might like to also focus on words like 'look' or 'took'.
3. Group words with similar spelling patterns together - e.g. as, is, has, his, was
4. Once you’ve eliminated/grouped the decodable ‘flash words’, incorporate other high-frequency words with one or two letters that need to be memorised e.g. said, you. These Tricky Word Mapping Mats are a free download in the Freebee Library.
Sight words at the beginning of Kindergarten
Reading Rockets recommends teaching 10-15 ‘pre-reading’ high-frequency words. This is unlikely to over-burden ‘at risk’ students, but will allow students to write decodable sentences as they begin phonics instruction. These words could include the following words: the, a, I, to, and, was, for, you, is, of, said, are
When teaching these initial common words, it is suggested to introduce one word at a time, and to separate words which could be easily confused (e.g. ‘to’ and ‘of’ are two-letter words with the letter ‘o’, and t/f have similar formations).
A note on flash words with 2 or 3 syllables
Students will find these words easier if they are broken into syllables, with known letter-sound combinations shown for each syllable. This will allow students to read each syllable, and then blend the syllables into the word, rather than having to memorise the entire word. Some examples of words where this could apply: about, around, seven, going, over, before, every
Are you a teacher looking for the best, most up-to-date evidence-based practices to help your students learn to read and spell?
Look no further! The Phonics & Beeyond FREE Handbook is packed with information and resources that will support you in your classroom.
You'll find 250+ pages with quality programs and curriculum recommendations, play based learning activities, quality assessment strategies and more - all from teachers who have successfully implemented phonics instruction in their classrooms.
And - there is an entire section dedicated to high frequency words! We explore the educational shift in teaching practice and the use of heart words, as well as how to teach explicit lessons and consolidation activities. This section includes a range of resources and activities that you can use in your classroom to support your students' high-frequency word learning.
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