High Frequency words: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

How do teachers approach the concept of high-frequency words and what's the best way of adopting them into classroom practice?

What are High Frequency Words?

The words that are most frequently used in the written text are called High Frequency Words. For example, 'the,' 'have,' and 'to,' may not have any specific meaning on their own, but these words contribute considerably in providing meaning to a sentence as a whole. Some high frequency words are also called sight words or tricky words. These words are not only difficult to sound out, but most of these also have a relatively abstract meaning which is difficult to explain to young learners. It is easy for children to learn words like "apple" and "boat" because these can be easily related to a picture or a real object, but it's tricky to explain the words like "of" or "the" because there's no point of reference.

Phonics is the foundation of reading, and teaching children to sound out words correctly helps them learn to recognise letters and sounds.Many schools still use traditional methods of teaching phonics, which often lead to frustration among children who struggle to understand the rules. Children can often encounter an irregular spellings that don't meet any obvious CVC spelling patterns. An unexpected spelling often contradicts what is taught within formal phonics instruction. Using frequency word sheets might help children to quickly identify these tricky words without having to identify and blend all the letter sounds.

Fortunately, there are now several effective ways to teach phonics. One method involves breaking down words into syllables (a vowel plus consonant) and teaching each syllable separately. This approach makes learning to read simple because it focuses on individual sounds rather than whole words. Primary schools are bombarded with advice around reading and it's sometimes difficult to make sense of the latest phonics programme when it might contradict what you have been taught during teacher training. The Internet is scattered with printable teaching resources and phonics lessons. The important thing is school needs to focus on is consistency throughout the different year groups.

Another popular method is called Whole Language, which teaches children to identify letter patterns and blend sounds together. The goal is to help children develop a strong vocabulary and become familiar with different types of words. Whole language is based on the idea that children should be taught to read through real books instead of just being given worksheets. Children need to hear words spoken aloud, and they need to practice recognizing and blending sounds together.

Finally, some teachers prefer to combine phonics and whole language. They break down words into syllables and teach children to recognize those syllables individually. Then they teach children to blend the syllables together to form complete words. There are pros and cons to each method, but the bottom line is this: Teaching children to read well is one of the most powerful tools parents and teachers can facilitate.

Why is it important to focus on high frequency words?

Children frequently come across high frequency words while reading texts. Due to this, it is important for the children to pronounce these words, read them correctly, spell them, and know what they indicate within a sentence. These words are considered to be a crucial part of literacy development as children will be frequently using these words in writing too. 

Research suggests that there are 16 high frequency words that constitute around a quarter of every text, for both children and adults, which shows exactly why it is important for children to understand these words.

Words like 'I' 'and' 'he' and more complex words such as 'then' 'that' and 'went' are commonly used as we read and write. An educated adult might not notice, but these words can be very tricky for children if they aren't taught how to use these words properly.

Learning and being able to identify high frequency words offers more confidence to the children. If a young learner can already identify a quarter of the words in a written text, they are more likely to become more interested to continue reading. Being able to recognize and read high frequency words can make reading and writing easier for children in the early years of their educational life.

A list of high frequency words

What are the strategies to teach children high frequency words?

Phonics as a whole and high frequency words constitute a fundamental part of a young learners' primary education. These establish the basis for writing and reading. Therefore, it is important to teach high frequency words effectively. Following are some of the tools that can be used to teach high frequency words to the students:

  • Flashcards: These provide the most popular way to teach high frequency words. The teacher may cut mini flashcards out and use them to play a variety of activities and frequency word games that involve repetition and improve students' memory of high and medium frequency words. Every week flashcards can be replaced with new flashcards having more complex words in terms of frequency.
  • Dictation passages: These act as a great source to assess children's knowledge of high frequency words and reading skills at the same time. Young learners are provided with a piece of writing with the blank spaces and they are asked to fill in the blanks with the missing high frequency words. This is a kind of activity, which makes children familiar with the high frequency words themselves and helps them to enhance their fluency of reading at school.
  • Daily reading sessions: These take place in the classroom and children may also get high frequency word lists for home which they have to memorize every week.
  • Look, cover, write, check: It is a popular way to teach high frequency words to the students. Children say the word in a loud voice as well as spell and write these words correctly. This method is effective for word recognition, of the words as well as memorization of the sounds.
  • At Structural Learning, we have been using a playful approach using the block building process. Children can quickly build words using different phonics combinations.

Developing vocabulary using Writers Block
Developing vocabulary using Writers Block

How to help children practise using high frequency words?

Teaching high frequency words to children is just the initial part of the process. To improve their learning, young learners need practice.

A popular way to practise high frequency words is to use a word mat. A word mat contains high frequency lists of 100 to 200 words that the young learners need to know. These mats provide a powerful revision and visual tool in the classroom, and children may use them when they are reading or writing.

Another effective way is a word search. When children are looking for high frequency words, they don't only learn how to spell these words but also develop strong word recognition skills. A word search is an incredible visual tool and also a fun way for young learners to practise this significant part of their learning.

Teachers may improve their young learners' beginner reading skills by engaging them in a high frequency words game! By concentrating on mastering the most widely used words, a high frequency words game may help a child develop his reading proficiency. After learning to read and write high frequency words children will not only build on their vocabulary, but they will also learn new sight words, and improve their reading comprehension.

Teachers may display high frequency words in a visually stimulating and engaging way so that children may consistently review their high-frequency words lists. These can be high-frequency word cards, resource packs, word mats, spelling resources, posters, or anything that can be displayed in the classroom which can be used by the children to check and refer to.

Building words using Writer's Block

Embedding high frequency words into classroom practice

One more way to help children practise high frequency words is through playing a memory game in the classroom. A memory game may enhance other brain functions, such as focus, concentration and attention. A good memory game that improves short-term memory can have a positive impact on a person's long-term memory too. If you are interested in this area you might want to look at our article on retrieval practice. Despite the name, this strategy can be quite engaging and helps strengthen the memory trace. The process can be embedded into reading games where children have to recall key information. Frequency word games can be a great way of camouflaging retrieval practice into an engaging experience. Once you have established your frequency lists, you can then begin to create games around these keywords. The strategy is not restricted to the English language, MFL teachers can create French frequency lists and use the same process of retrieval.

High frequency words are those words that occur most frequently in written texts, for example, "it", "as", "the" and "with". These building-blocks of vocabulary have little meaning alone, but they contribute considerably as a whole to the meaning of a sentence. These are the words that may not be able to be pictured, and as such, they simply must be understood and memorized. It is recommended that children learn how to read these words as these words will make up a huge proportion of the words young learners will be reading in everyday texts. They must also learn to spell high frequency words as they would frequently use these a great deal in their writing. Good readers are quick to identify high frequency words, they don't have to work hard to decode them. Sight words are most likely to be "high-frequency" words, which appear most frequently in our language.