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The Difference Between "Sight Words" and "High Frequency Words"

Have you heard the terms high frequency words and sight words? Not sure what the difference is?

These two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they actually aren't the same thing!

High frequency words are:

  • Words that appear often in texts (especially beginning books for children)
  • Can be regularly spelled (no surprises or unusual sounds – like the words “and” or “like”)
  • Can also be irregularly spelled (have some surprises or tricky sounds, like the words “four” or “does”) 

We want to teach high frequency words because they make reading and writing easier. Children can read a book more quickly and easily when they instantly recognize a handful of the words (they can blend to read the other words). They can write sentences more easily when they only have to think deeply about spelling some, not all, of the words.

Some high frequency words must also be specifically taught because they are irregularly spelled and cannot easily be decoded. For example, the word "does" has some "surprising" sounds: /d/ /u/ (short u) /z/. If students are not specifically taught this word, they might sound it out as /d/ /o/ /e/ /s/, which end up sounding something like "daws."

Now let's talk about sight words. Sight words are ANY words that a reader knows instantly, by sight.

Sight words can be words such as "the" or "dinosaur." They're completely unique to the reader and their personal word knowledge!

A high frequency word can become a sight word over time, if a student practices the word enough. 

What happens in the brain when a student learns a new word?

Historically, some teachers have been taught to rely on "memorization" and flash cards to help students learn words. Many phonics programs still use this approach.

However, when someone is learning a new word, the learning process works best when these three areas of the brain are activated:

Brain Area #1: Meaning

When students are learning a high frequency word, they need to understand what it means. They need to experience it in the context of a sentence. They should also come up with their own example sentences (orally and/or in writing).

Brain Area #2: Spelling

Just learning to read a high frequency word isn’t enough – students should learn to spell them, too!

Multi-sensory activities are great for spelling practice. A multi-sensory activity incorporates more than one of the five senses.

Brain Area #3: Sounds

Students need to connect the letters in the word to the sounds that the letters make. For example, in the photo below, students are connecting each sound in the word "does" (/d/ /u/ /z/) to the corresponding letters.


High-Quality High Frequency Word Instruction

From Sounds to Spelling takes a multi-sensory approach to teaching high frequency words. The routines embedded in this phonics program seek to activate all three parts of the brain to help students learn high frequency words.

The routine includes the following steps:

-Present a written sentence to students that includes the target word.

-Have students come up with their own original sentences – orally. (In late 1st grade and up, students may write sentences with the word as time permits.)

-Discuss the sounds in the word.

-“Tap out” the word on their arms (say each letter in the word while touching a different part on their arm).

-Write the word.

To learn more about how the From Sounds to Spelling phonics program helps build students’ high frequency word recognition and phonics skills, click here. On that page, you can download a free week of instruction for Kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade that also includes examples of the high frequency word routine. Additionally, the complete program includes an in-depth video demonstrating how to implement the multi-sensory, brain-based high frequency word routine.

An Example Lesson Plan for Teaching Vowel Teams

An Example Lesson Plan for Teaching Glued Sounds

An Example Lesson Plan for Teaching Consonant Blends