High-Frequency Words: Mapping Instead of Memorizing

High-frequency words are the words that appear most often in print. Because they appear so frequently in texts, these words needs to be anchored in our students’ memory. 

In this post, I will be talking about how to teach high-frequency words and sharing strategies that move away whole-word memorization, or reading words by “sight.” 

Moving Away From Memorization

Using memorization strategies to teach high-frequency words is not uncommon. Our intuition tells us that words are stored in our visual memory. So this means with repeated exposure to words, sending home word lists, using flash cards, etc. a student will learn them, right? Not always.. scientific research proves otherwise. Reading experts and cognitive scientists are uncovering more effective strategies and practices for teaching readers moving away from visual memory. 

The pendulum always swings in education, so the reading wars are not new. However, in recent years, the whole language approach has been challenged again. This educational philosophy supports the idea that when surrounded by enough rich text, students don’t always need explicit and systematic lessons that break down the reading code. It was believed that students were/are able to store entire words in their memory and recognize them on sight. A theory introduced by Linea Ehri supports the process of acquisition of letter strings into long term memory through a process called orthographic mapping. We now know our brains store letter strings in our memory by bonding them to the phonemes that we already have an awareness of. With this research and understanding, we must incorporate strategies for teaching and learning. 

Sight Words vs. High-Frequency Words

When we discuss strategies that can be used that support this research, it is important to differentiate between sight words and high-frequency words. Sight words are words that we have had students memorize using repeated visual exposure. This is what we are moving away from. High- frequency words are decodable words and appear most often in text. There are also “heart words.” These are a specific type of high-frequency word. Heart words are high-frequency words that have irregular spelling patterns. Because of this, they need to be explicitly taught. Teaching heart words is critical because nearly 40% of the most common high-frequency words are heart words. Learning high-frequency words (including heart words) is essential for developing fluency in reading. 

Strategies for Learning High-Frequency Words

Finding ways to teach high-frequency words in a way that is engaging and motivating for students can have an impact on student growth. Here are five strategies to incorporate in your classroom! 

  1. Use a sound wall. Get rid of that word wall and create a space that focuses on displaying SOUNDS heard in speech. Focusing on phonemes and spelling patterns will help students develop an understanding of phoneme-grapheme correspondence. 
  2. Try using multi-sensory approaches to teaching high-frequency words. Have students cut out words for word sorts, trace words in sand, or tap them out. 
  3. Have students map out sounds sounds using sound boxes. This is great for all high-frequency words, but especially heart words. 
  4. Incorporate games! Try a roll and read board game, a scavenger hunt, or play word bingo! These are great for word recognition and fluency. 
  5. Map words in a variety of contexts. Have students highlight a targeted word in a list of words, reading a fluency map, reading a decodable text, reading a sentence pyramid, and writing the word.

Simplifying Teaching High-Frequency Words

Teaching high frequency words (including heart words) is an ongoing process and requires practice, patience, repetition, and a variety of strategies. I have created a resource that can make adding this to your routine super simple, with hardly any prep time! My High-Frequency Word Practice is perfect for K-1 students and can also be used for older students who still need some of the basics.

Using the strategies shared can help students develop the skills they need to become confident and successful readers. Which will you try first? 

High-Frequency Words Practice Pages

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Hi! I’m Toluca from Markers and Minions, where I help teachers feel more effective and confident with high-quality resources and an awesome teacher community!

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