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Should We Teach Regularly-Spelled High Frequency Words?

Regularly-spelled high frequency words can be "sounded out" using phonics knowledge. This begs the question, should we spend time teaching children these words individually, when they could be decoded using phonics?

In this post, we'll explore exactly what high frequency words are, how regularly-spelled and irregularly-spelled high frequency words are different, and whether we should spend time teaching high frequency words that kids can sound out using phonics.

What are high frequency words?

As you may already know, high frequency words are words that appear frequently in texts. When high frequency word lists like Dolch or Fry were created, beginning books were analyzed and the frequency of common words were tallied up. The most frequently-appearing words made it onto the lists!

You may also have heard the term "sight words." So how are they different from high frequency words? Well, sight words are ANY words that a reader knows by sight. A reader's sight word knowledge can include high frequency words and many other words. But when children are first learning to read, the high frequency words that appear on lists won't be sight words for them yet.

To read more about the difference between high frequency words and sight words, check out this post.

We teach high frequency words for a few different reasons. First, they make it easier for children to read and write words. A list of 100-200 high frequency words makes up over 50% of the words in school texts! These are highly-useful words to be able to read and spell, and they build students' reading fluency. Second, some of these high frequency words have tricky spellings that children need to pay special attention to. This brings us to our next question...

What are regularly-spelled and irregularly-spelled high frequency words?

In the past, high frequency words have often been treated as "all the same." But in reality, some of the words on common high frequency lists have an important difference between them: some are regularly-spelled and some are irregularly-spelled.

Many high frequency words are regularly-spelled, meaning that they only include typical sound-spelling relationships. Children can sound them out once they've learned the applicable phonics skills. For example, the word "like" is regularly-spelled. The /l/ sound is represented by the letter l, the long i sound is represented by the i with a silent e, and the /k/ sound is represented by the letter k. No surprises here! A few other examples of regularly-spelled high frequency words are: by, for, me.

Then there's irregularly-spelled high frequency words. Most words in the English language follow some type of pattern. However, certain words have "unexpected" sound-spelling relationships. For example, the word "said" has the short e sound in the middle, just like the word "red." The short e sound is typically spelled with the letter e, but in "said," it's spelled with the letters "ai." When a child is learning the word "said," their brain must make the connection between the letters "ai" and the short e sound. A few other examples of irregularly-spelled high frequency words (sometimes called "heart words") are: the, would, come.

Should we spend time teaching regularly-spelled high frequency words?

If kids can "sound out" the regularly-spelled high frequency words, you might think that we wouldn't bother spending time on these words at all - you'd just teach phonics, and the kids would learn those words eventually.

However, there are a couple of caveats here.

First:

High frequency words are highly-useful in learning to read and write. Certain phonics patterns aren't taught for a couple of years. So while it's beneficial to teach high frequency words that "match" the phonics pattern you're currently teaching, it doesn't always make sense to wait until a phonics pattern is taught to teach a high frequency word.

Here's an example to make this more concrete:

"Silent e" is a skill that's not typically taught until first grade. It may come up at the end of Kindergarten for advanced students.

As we discussed previously, "like" is a regularly-spelled word. Children could learn to read and spell it when they get to it in their first grade phonics scope and sequence.

However, "like" is a very common word. It will undoubtedly appear in Kindergarten-level texts. Children love talking about what they like or don't like, so it's helpful for them to be able to spell it. So in this case, it may make sense to teach "like" in Kindergarten, even though children aren't yet learning about the silent e spelling pattern yet.

Second:

Just because a word can be decoded (read) using phonics knowledge doesn't mean that we want students to be spending lots of time decoding them. High frequency words appear frequently in texts. We want students to be able to read them quickly and easily!

For this reason, even though we want to teach students the phonics skills that would allow them to read and spell many words, we'll probably want to spend a little extra time on high frequency words.

For example, let's say you're teaching r controlled o (as in "porch" and "storm"). You're going to want to spend more time working on the word "for" than the word "stork." "For" appears more frequently in texts - it's a high-frequency word, and we want students to be able to read it quickly. (Fluent reading supports strong comprehension.) On the other hand, the r-controlled o word "stork" appears much less frequently in texts, so it's okay if it takes students a bit longer to sound it out as they're reading.

In a nutshell, high frequency words deserve a little more time and attention than other words - even if they're regularly-spelled.

If you're looking for a program that follows research-based methods for teaching high frequency words, check out From Sounds to Spelling at this link.

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