What Are High-Frequency Words?
High-frequency words are commonly-occurring words in printed language.
Some high-frequency words are spelled with regular letter-sound associations, and can be decoded phonetically like any other word. For example:
Some high-frequency words have irregular spellings. For example:
Let’s think more about the role of high-frequency words in reading and writing and how to teach them.
High-Frequency Words vs. Sight Words
The terms “sight words” and “high-frequency words” are often used interchangeably, but have key differences. A “sight word” is any word a reader recognizes automatically. Eventually, nearly all words become “sight words” for experienced readers. Skilled readers do not usually need to stop to phonetically analyze words.
High-frequency words eventually become sight words as readers develop, but even for early readers, other words, such as familiar names, may also be considered sight words.
Common High-Frequency Word Lists
Oftentimes, teachers use a list to keep track of high-frequency word introduction and practice. Two common lists are the Dolch Word List and the Fry Word List.
- The Dolch Sight Word List, developed by Dr. Edward William Dolch in the 1930s and 40s, includes 220 “service” words and 95 frequently used nouns that account for 80% of the words used in reading material for young children.
- The Fry Sight Word List, compiled by Dr. Edward Fry in the 1950s and edited in the 1980s, includes the most common 1000 words found in reading material used in 3rd grade through 9th grade.
How to Introduce High-Frequency Words
Even if a high-frequency word includes irregular spellings, readers should still be taught to attend to the letters in the word. Usually a word includes some standard phonetic associations alongside the irregular ones. For instance, what includes standard spellings of /wh/ and /t/; the only irregular letter is the “a”, which sounds like it should be the letter u.
There are many possibilities for teaching high-frequency words. Priorities include:
- Attention to which letters are in the word and the sounds they represent (even if some are irregular)
- Hearing, reading and writing the word in context
It can be helpful to coordinate word introductions with letter-sound associations students have studied. For instance, teach “am,” and” & “can” after students have learned the sounds of c, m, n, d and short a.
Focus on phonetic features of a word that a reader has learned based on his or her stage of development. Point out any disparities between how the word sounds and how it’s spelled. For example, “They sounds like it ends in –ay like play, but it’s spelled with –ey.”
It can also be helpful to practice words with related spellings as a group. Readers can use the spelling of one word (even if it is irregular) to support reading of related words (e.g., could, should, would.)
Example High-Frequency Word Practice Tasks
- Sing or chant the letters and word
- Make the word with magnetic letters or letter tiles and slide a finger under each word to read it; talk about other similar words that can be made using some of the letters. (“I made can, and if I use the an and add a d it says and.”)
- Write the word in a tray of sand, sugar, paint, shaving foam, etc. while saying the letters aloud and then reading the whole word.
- Play word-reading games like Bingo, Tic-Tac-Toe, Memory, and Go Fish
- Read a “password” posted on a card every time students enter or exit a door
- Find and circle words in a written message, poem, or book
Reading and writing high-frequency words in context is important for children to begin to use them in meaningful ways. Create a patterned book or chart with children for them to read. Here’s what to do:
- Cut ½ sheets of paper and staple them into a mini-book, or arrange sentence strips in a pocket chart.
- Write, or help students write, repetitive sentences with one or more target high-frequency words. (e.g., I like to run. I like to swim. I like to climb. I like to eat pizza.)
- Have students help illustrate the sentences to support comprehension.
- Have students read their chart with a pointer or their books while pointing to each word, paying special attention to the high-frequency words.