Have you been hearing about “heart words”? Have you wondered what it means or why teachers are using them? After taking professional development and teaming up with some experts, I’m spilling the beans about heart words today.
Important Note Before Learning About Heart Words
First things first.
This blog post is not meant to provoke guilt.
That is the LAST thing I’m trying to do.
As teachers, we’ve all been taught how to teach.
As science progresses, and time goes on, we learn more about the most effective ways teach.
(In this case, we are learning a more effective way to teach high frequency words.)
As we learn more, we adjust how we teach to do better.
THAT 👆🏼 is giving our students our best.
We don’t have to be perfect, we just need to be teachable. 😉
So take a deep breath and repeat after me: “We will not feel guilty for how we have taught high frequency words in the past.”
Ok, glad we can be on the same page! Let’s get started!
What are heart words?
Heart words is a method for teaching high frequency words (which many of us have come to call sight words).
High frequency words are the most commonly used words in printed text.
Many schools use sight word lists such as the Dolch or Fry lists to help students in their reading. Some schools and schools districts have generated their own lists (this is how it was where I taught).
In the past, we have been taught that need our students to memorize these high frequency words (and know them “by sight”) in an effort to get them reading sooner.
We now know that memorizing high frequency words isn’t the most effective way to teach high frequency words.
What’s “Wrong” with Sight Words?
So many words look alike when it comes to the shape of the word.
Here are some examples:
- would / could
- them / then
- and / ant
When students are memorizing words, they often memorize word shape instead of the actual word.
This can cause confusion as these similar word shapes can be difficult to distinguish from one another.
Take a moment to read this story carefully:
A big black ant saw a red strawberry. He knew he could carry it with help from his friends. So, the and went ant got his friends to help him. All of his and friends came to help ant get the strawberry home. Them they all ate the strawberry. They were happy ands!
Did you catch the mistakes?
New readers don’t always have the ability or knowledge to recognize mistakes in their reading. By relying on word shape, it’s possible they would have read this story with errors, as shown above.
Have you ever had a student try to sound out the word said? /s/-/a/-/i/-/d/ … sa-id? We’ve all been there! 😅
With phonics being the most effective way to teach reading, we teach our young readers to sound out words.
Then we get to that high frequency word and suddenly…we don’t want them to sound it out.
There’s a gap there, isn’t there?
By teaching them heart words, we are teaching students to apply phonics to decodable parts of the word, and to remember the irregular parts of the word “by heart.”
What are Heart Words?
Heart words is a way to teach high frequency words.
We teach them to sound out the words that are phonetic…and the parts that aren’t, we teach them to know by heart.
(I mean, on top of being science-based, I find it really cute, too!)
Let’s continue our example of the word said.
Example Heart Word: Said
The s makes the /s/ sound. ✅
The d makes the /d/ sound. ✅
But the a and the I (ai), in this case, doesn’t not make the long a (vowel team) sound. 😬 Uh, oh!
Instead, it makes the short e sound. 🤔 This part of the word is truly irregular.
So that (ai) is the part that readers will need to learn “by heart.” 💜
So, we mark that part of the word with a little heart above it. (There will be an example of this below.)
Students can also underline the letter(s) of the “heart part” for emphasis. This is especially helpful if there is more than one letter involved in the “heart part” (like the ai in said.) However, I think it’s a good habit to also underline all of the heart parts, regardless of how many letters are involved.
When little readers can see that they know parts of the word (the s and the d) and they only need to remember a special part by heart (ai), it makes the words less intimidating.
And now, when they go to sound out the word said, you can remind them about the part they learned by heart!
How to Teach and Practice Heart Words
Have you heard about word mapping? (If not, click here to read all about word mapping.)
When teaching heart words, put those word mapping skills to use.
Get your boxes out, and map out the heart words you want to teach.
Let’s continue our example with the word said.
It has 3 sounds. /s/ /e/ /d/
So you’ll want 3 boxes.
Remember how I said they will want to know ai by heart?
Have students add a heart above the ai.
They can also underline the ai.
Have students tap the word (to find the number of sounds), map the word (to connect phonemes to graphemes), and heart/underline the part(s) of the word that are irregular.
You can still practice heart words with many of the sensory activities we’ve used for “sight words.”
Explicitly teach students which parts of the word are phonemitc, and which parts are the “heart part.”
- Play dough – you know they will love making hearts out of play dough!
- Shaving cream writing – they can still heart it and underline it!
- Stamping words – just add a heart stamp to your letter stamps!
The big difference is that now students only have to memorize “the heart part”! 🥰
But wait…some high frequency words are 100% phonetic. What then?
Yes, some high frequency are phonetic.
Actually, I bet it’s more than you might initially think.
You’ll be surprised when you start thinking of “sight words” as “heart words” and realize that so many of those words were phonetic all along.
Examples of phonetic high frequency words:
- and many more!
This is actually great because students can apply what they’ve learned through phonics to decode (read) these words.
For example: made
This word is completely phonetic. Yay!
But it does contain CVCe.
And my kindergarteners don’t learn CVCe until the end of the school year.
But made is on the high frequency word list my distrct wants me teaching in the middle of the year…
What if they haven’t learned the (phonics) skill yet?
Flash Words VS Heart Words
Have you heard the term “flash words”?
Flash words are high frequency words that are fully decodable.
You might be wondering why are they categorized as “heart words” or “flash words” if they’re fully decodable.
Remember, high frequency words are the most commonly used words in printed text (about 50% of text is derived from them 😬) so it’s crucial for our beginning readers to know these words.
Just because a high frequency word is decodable, doesn’t mean that a student has learned that phonics skill…YET.
For example, the high frequency word see.
It’s fully decodable: /s/ /ee/.
However, most early kindergarteners have NOT learned long vowel teams (yet).
Seeing how frequently the word see appears in text, it highly benefits the reader to be able to read the word.
From now until the reader learns long vowel team spellings, see is a heart word.
They map the word into two boxes, because there are two sounds.
And then the heart goes above “ee.” For now, they need to know “ee” says (long) /e/ by heart.
Once they learn long vowel teams, they will be able to fully decode this word.
At that point, see becomes a flash word.
Again, I think you’ll be surprised how many high frequency words are truly phonemitc.
(I plan to make another blog post dedicated to this soon.)
How Do I Start Teaching Heart Words?
I’ll be sharing more about this in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, we have to start somewhere, right?
I’m assuming your district/school/team has a list of high frequency words that you have teach/your students have to memorize. (At least that’s what happened to me!)
What’s the next word on the list?
When you teach it – word map it! Heart it!
Explicitly teach your students one high frequency word at a time.
Dissect the number of the sounds the word has and then map the word.
Discuss what parts of the word are regular (phonetic) and what parts they need to know “by heart.”
Have students map the word, heart/underline the word, write the word, and read the word.
Heart Word Resources
Are you looking for resources for teaching heart words?
These worksheets are great for introducing new high frequency words using the heart words method.Shop Heart Words Worksheets on TPT
Are you wanting to make sure your students apply their knowledge of a heart word/high frequency word in the context of reading? You and your students are going to love these (truly) decodable short stories!Shop Heart Words in Decodable Short Stories on TPT
I hope this post was helpful in teaching you about heart words. Remember, no guilt allowed!
If you have any questions about teaching heart words, leave them in the comments below and I will do my best to answer them for you.
If you’re looking for more in depth information on heart words, I highly recommend this article.