When Should I Teach My Child Sight Words (High Frequency Words)?

Reading & Phonics

There are a few of them in this blog’s title alone: high frequency words, often called sight words. In truth, every word that one reads quickly and without having to consciously decode is a sight word. The more you read, the more you have; they’re called high-frequency words because they appear frequently in written texts. There are two types of sight words: those which follow phonics “rules” and those which don’t, at least in part.

Here’s how to understand the two types of sight words, and a few guidelines for introducing them to your early reader.

Two Types of Sight Words

High-frequency words which follow phonics rules become “sight words” after they are read multiple times and undergo a process of orthographic mapping in the reader’s mind. 

There are high-frequency words that are easily sounded out, depending on how many letter-sound relationships a child knows. (E.g, “it,” “up,” “and” and “so.”) There are others regular, high-frequency words which follow phonics rules or letter-sound relationships  that a younger reader might not yet have learned. (E.g., “was,” “the,” “was,” “found,” “work”)

Words which don’t fully follow spelling generalizations are sometimes called “Red Words” or “Heart Words,” because they need to be learned “by heart.” While a portion of the word may follow phonics rules, there is at least one part of a Heart Word which defies spelling conventions; an example might be “said,” in which /ai/ is making a short-e sound instead of its usual “ay” sound. These unconventional words, once read enough times, will also become “sight words.”

How Do We Learn “Sight Words?”

How does one go from decoding the sounds in “A-N-D” — or “S-AI-D” for that matter — to processing these words so quickly it seems like instantaneous recognition.? This “orthographic mapping” is simply the final stage of decoding skill development. After your child learns basic letter sounds, they should next move onto phonics instruction and begin practising decoding words with simple phonograms, e.g., “cat.” Over time, these pronunciations are memorized through a natural process called “orthographic mapping,” which combines learned pronunciation, meaning and spelling.

A database of all learned words and pronunciations is thus formed in our long-term memory: the orthographic map. This map stores both regular words which follow spelling conventions and irregular words.

Renowned researcher David Kilpatrick estimates that average readers need to decode a word 1 to 4 times for it to be stored in their orthographic memory. Students with dyslexia will typically need to practise decoding a word more frequently than this in order to store it in long-term orthographic memory. And for students with an orthographic processing disorder, creating this store of ‘sight words’ is difficult and decoding will be a necessary strategy much of the time. 

Should Children Memorize Sight Words?

Teaching reading through whole-word “recognition” is an outdated method. No matter how fast it seems when a skilled reader does it, decoding is still a part of the reading process, even for sight words.

Your child absolutely needs to practise, practise, practise reading and decoding sounds regularly and often to form a robust orthographic map of known words. That said, simple memorization is not the route to orthographic mapping, with decodable words OR unconventional words. A program of phonics instruction is the best way of teaching reading to all students, regardless of ability, and for all words, high-frequency words included. 

At the Reading School, we incorporate high-frequency words into a child’s reading journey when they are necessary for continued process.

Which High-Frequency Words Should My Child Know?

Would you be frustrated if we told you: it depends? Your child needs the high-frequency “function words” that appear between the nouns and verbs in the texts they are reading. It’s difficult to generalize one particular order in which these words should be taught to kids, since their personal exposure to written material and how much reading they do will determine which words they know, or need to know, at any given time.

There are two widely used lists of high-frequency English words which you might discover in your research. In 1936, Edward Dolch published A Basic Sight Word Vocabulary,” a list of 220 words which appear most frequently in written texts, to help teachers select words for drilling students up to grade 3. The Dolch list is comprised of “function words” which are necessary to construct phrases and sentences of nouns and verbs. (e.g., of, to, and, the)

A more recent list of high-frequency words is the Fry “Instant Words” List. Created in the 1950s and expanded in 1980, this list by Edward Fry includes the 1000 most frequently used words — nouns and verbs included — for grades 3 through 9 in the United States. It includes all parts of speech, including nouns and verbs, and was designed to be used for “whole word” rote learning and memorization, a theory of reading instruction that has been debunked since Fry’s time.

In their essence and intent, the Dolch and Fry lists are very different. The original Fry list is a compilation of words that appeared in children’s literature in the 1950s. A lot has changed in children’s literature since the 1950s, as you can probably imagine. Furthermore, the nouns listed are reading context specific. Who is to say a child should learn mountain before hundred? 

By contrast, the original Dolch list is a set of 220 essential words that every person must be able to read and which will appear in any kind of English text. These function words allow us to make meaning. (E.g., [We] [are] at [the] farm [with] Dad.) 

How To Practise Sight Words With Your Child

Since Dolch’s and Fry’s time, reading research has evolved beyond the “look-say-memorize” model. We now know that high-frequency words which follow phonics rules should be decoded phonetically, like all other words.

When a high-frequency words such as “at” or “on” appears in your child’s book, simply apply the same phonics decoding principles to these words, since they follow spelling conventions. In other words, ask your child to identify the sounds and “sound it out.” These words will be added to the orthographic map over time, as words which follow the rules they are learning.

On the other hand, some high-frequency words,such as “said” and “was,” cannot be decoded because their spellings are irregular. Your child will still learn them with exposure and, eventually, they will be stored in the orthographic map. At The Reading School, the teaching of high-frequency words is structured right into reading lessons so that a child is given a lot of opportunity to read, and re-read, a small set of high-frequency words at a time, with focussed repetition nudging the word forward to the orthographically mapped stage.

When reading with your child, simply tell them the pronunciation for words they have not yet learned to decode, and ask them to repeat it. Then re-read.

Diane Duff, Director of The Reading School, recommends a process such as this when an irregular, high-frequency word appears in your child’s text:

Child: “The cat…[was]”

Parent: “That word says ‘wuz.’ Can you say ‘was’?”

Child: “was”

Parent: “Great! Now let’s go back to the beginning of the sentence and try it all together.”

Child: “The cat was…”

Prepare to repeat this process many times over subsequent reading sessions as your child becomes accustomed to the unconventional spelling of the word. Do not expect them to sound it out, or sound out a portion of the word. Simply state, ask them to repeat, then practise reading the word within the context of the sentence or phrase so it makes “sense” to your child. Over time, the word will become mapped with its spelling “was” attached to its sound “wuz” in your child’s brain, just as it is in yours. Simple!


Which early reading books have you enjoyed with your child? Have you followed a process like this when it comes to irregular high-frequency words? Share your experience below!

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