If you were to poll an audience of educators–classroom teachers, literacy specialists, reading researchers, and university professors–about whether high frequency words should be taught in early elementary, the resounding answer would be YES. These words, after all, are important to students’ ultimate reading success.
The nuances of teaching high frequency words in early elementary would only arise around how these words should be taught.
Luckily, there is a plethora of best practice research and engaging, tech-enabled activities on teaching high frequency words to help teachers make it both a fun and interesting learning experience for young students.
Understanding high frequency words
Before teaching about high frequency words, it is important to understand how they differ from sight words. While these categories of words are often used interchangeably and can cross pollinate, high frequency words are words that appear most frequently in spoken and written language. Sight words, on the other hand, are those words that students recognize by sight–without the need to stop and decode the word–when reading.
For example, “the” is a high frequency word as well as a sight word for many people. “Email” is not a high frequency word, but is often a sight word. Classmates’ names often become sight words for students. Kindergarten students who are still emergent readers during the first semester will quickly learn their name by sight, as well as their classmates’ names (…and, they often get a great sense of satisfaction when recognizing and reading each other’s names!)
When it comes to choosing the actual words that are considered high frequency words, the educational community has embraced three different lists of words: the Dolch, Zeno, and Fry high frequency word lists. These lists have many shared words, and there is no research that says one list supersedes the other. Any of the lists or teaching a combination of the lists should still help produce successful readers.
Strategies for teaching emerging readers high frequency words
There are hundreds of ways to teach high frequency words and the majority of those ways fall into two instructional categories: memorization and phonics integration.
Both of these instructional strategies lead to students learning and quickly recalling many, many words–both high frequency words and sight words–with automaticity. This is called orthographic mapping, which is essentially a progression of warehousing words permanently in a student’s memory for immediate retrieval.
With memorization, teachers can create fun–and effective–learning opportunities for students as long as a few rules are applied. First, it is important to eliminate distractions so that the focus is on the high frequency word. Distractions can include other words printed around the target word, and having accompanying pictures with a word. For example, a picture of a girl in a swing holding her cat can be distracting when the target word is “with.”
It is also important for teachers to say the high frequency word clearly multiple times and to put the word in a sentence for contextual understanding. Providing students with the opportunity to write the word, so they are making the physical connection to the spoken word, is also important.
There are a number of digital flashcard apps teachers can use to help students memorize high frequency words. The flashcards can also be shown to the whole class using projectors or interactive displays as part of a whole group activity.
Creating “sounds walls” in the classroom–whether on a bulletin board or digital display–highlighting four to five high frequency words is another great way to help students visualize, practice, and memorize target words. Each week, the words can be swapped out with new ones for them to learn.
Another strategy for teaching high frequency words is through integrating the words into phonics lessons. It will help if teachers pick high frequency words that integrate with the phonics skills they are covering. For example, when teaching the phonic element /s/, it can be valuable to include the high frequency word “said,” even if the vowel irregularity of /ai/ hasn’t been taught yet. If students are learning /s/ and maybe even /d/, they will be excited and motivated to apply this knowledge to learning and remembering a new word.
With either memorization or phonics integration, teachers can play a quiz game with students in which teams compete to come up with answers to questions about high frequency words. Or, they can have students participate in racetrack-style board games where two or more players move markers along the spaces of a path from start to finish. At each stop, the player must read a word and use it correctly in a sentence in order to stay on that space. Technology, whether through the use of apps or student devices, can easily be incorporated into both of these game-based activities to make the experiences even more engaging.
Regardless of which instructional strategy is used to teach high frequency words, it is important that students are immersed and active participants in the learning experience. This means that students should be hearing, saying, reading and writing high frequency words consistently within foundational lessons. These immersive opportunities are what make the words stick and what keep students engaged. And, it’s the ultimate mastery of high frequency words that will enable young students to grow into proficient readers.