Sight words vs. high frequency words. What’s the difference? This is the beginning of our blog series all about sight words.
What are sight words?
Traditionally, when teachers say “sight words,” they are referring to high frequency words that children should know by sight.
We often define sight words as words that kids can’t sound out – words like the, for example.
But this definition is not correct. While sight words may be irregular, the definition of sight words is NOT words that kids can’t sound out.
Reading researchers have a different definition of sight words.
A sight word is a word that is instantly and effortlessly recalled from memory, regardless of whether it is phonically regular or irregular. A sight-word vocabulary refers to the pool of words a student can effortlessly recognize.David A. Kilpatrick, PhD
As an adult, most of the words you encounter are sight words, because unless you’re reading from a challenging textbook or a technical manual, you know the words automatically. You don’t need to sound them out.
What are high frequency words?
High frequency words are the words that are most commonly used in the English language. These words may be regular (as in and) or irregular (as in the).
It’s essential that students develop automaticity as they read, and one way to do this is to help them read many high frequency words by sight.
Our goal is to make high frequency words SIGHT WORDS.
We want our students to recognize high frequency words instantly. But the way we do this isn’t by giving them stacks of words to memorize.
Will students memorize some high frequency words?
Yes, at first.
They’ll memorize their names and a few other words like Dad and Mom.
And there’s nothing wrong with teaching pre-readers a small set of sight words before they begin reading. In their article, A New Model for Teaching High Frequency Words, Linda Farrell, Tina Osenga, and Michael Hunter recommend teaching the following sight words to new readers:
We can teach these words to students after they know letter names but before they’ve begun phonics instruction.
This is just to get them started.
There’s a problem with the common practice of sending home lists of words for students to memorize. “While this method works for many students, it is an abysmal failure with others.” (A New Model for Teaching High Frequency Words, by Farrell, Osenga and Hunter).
Rather, we should integrate high frequency word instruction into phonics lessons whenever possible.
More on that in a minute. First …
What are flash words and heart words?
Some educators refer to decodable high frequency words as “flash words.” These words appear so frequently that students should be able to read them in a flash.
Irregular high frequency words are sometimes called “heart words” because there are parts of the word that can’t be sounded out; students must learn those parts “by heart.”
Teach both flash words and heart words using phonics
Be leery of any reading program that says students need to “just memorize” irregular words.
Rather, look for a program that organizes high frequency words to fit phonics lessons wherever possible.
In other words, teach the word can when students know the sounds of c, a, and n.
Even with irregular words (“heart words”) we can all attention to the part of the word that IS regular.
Really Great Reading has some excellent instructional videos to help you teach those tricky heart words.
Find all of Really Great Reading’s “heart word magic” videos here.
Will we just ask students to memorize SOME sight words?
Yes. High frequency words are the glue that hold decodable sentences together. We want students to know some of these words so the decodable books they read make sense.
Because of that, we’ll teach a small number of sight words to pre-readers, and additional words as needed so our students can read their decodable books.
But let’s let go of this idea that students need to memorize lists and lists of sight words.
Turn high frequency words into sight words with these engaging mats!
High Frequency Word Practice Mats – 240 words!
Students will count the sounds in words, spell them, read them in context, and more! What a meaningful, multi-sensory way to master high frequency words!
Stay tuned for the rest of this series!
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9
Wilson Fundations is a good phonics curriculum, but the high frequency words are called Trick Words. I hate that! They are rolled out in a logical order—easy sight words first, to facilitate reading, and then in conjunction with the phonics concept being learned. My first graders like to sort out regular decodable sight words from the “tricky” ones with parts that must be learned by heart.
Your post brings clarity where terms might be confusing and assignments burdensome to little learners.
I can understand that “trick words” isn’t the best thing to call them! Thank you so much for your feedback on this post, Barbara!
New perspectives, I love it!
Your post made more sense by keeping the best part of learning the sight words by integrating that with a more effective how.
Thank you so much for your feedback, Michele!