Sight words and high frequency words are a huge component of reading instruction, yet the difference between the two is rarely discussed. Here’s how learning the difference between the two has changed my reading instruction – for the better!
Have you really thought about your list of sight words and high frequency words?
I was just talking to a teacher friend and she mentioned that her district had just updated theirs.
Why would they need to update their list? I wondered.
That sent me down a rabbit hole of wondering.
Why are there so many variations of sight words and high frequency words lists?
Why do the lists vary from district to district?
Why would a list need to change?
Why, why, why?
Once my head stopped spinning 🤪I researched and found some really interesting answers about sight words VS high frequency words that helped shape my instruction.
It turns out, sight words and high frequency words are different from each other. 🤯
I had always assumed that they had different names, just like the “Fry’s” and “Dolch” lists. Yeah, that’s not why they differ! 🤦🏻♀️
What’s a Sight Word?
A sight word is a word that does not follow the rules of spelling or syllables. These words are not decodable.
I knew this already! So then that begs the question…
What is a high frequency word?
A high frequency word is a decodable word that students need to know in order to be fluent readers.
But…. (there’s always a but you know…)
These words may follow rules that a student will not learn until after they “need” to know them.
Examples of Sight Words and High Frequency Words
The is a sight word. It does not follow a decodable spelling pattern. In other words, no matter how much phonics you have taught your students, they’re not going to be able to sound it out.
(Tell me I’m not the only teacher who has watched a student try to sound out the during an assessment. 😂🤪)
Like is a high frequency word. It does follow the typical CVCe pattern.
However, a student will probably reading the word like when they are decoding CVC words!
I like the cat.
They’re focusing on decoding CVC words…it’s not the time to throw in the sneaky, magic, bossy, silent, whatever-you-want-to-call-it e.
Clearly, both of the words (the – sight word; like – high frequency word) are important for new readers to know early on in their reading instruction because they are very common.
Thus, both types of words (sight words and high frequency words) should be memorized.
Sight Word and High Frequency Word History
The Dolch sight word list was developed in 1937 by Edward Dolch. He included a mix of sight words and high frequency words that he said should be memorized to increase reading ability.
He believed, (and now research proves), that these words could be stumbling blocks for new readers. If they memorized them, they would become more fluent than if they had to decode them each time they read them.
13 of the most commonly used words make up 25% OF ANY TEXT. 🤯
100 of the most common sight words and high frequency words make up 50% OF ANY TEXT. 🤯
Now you’re probably thinking…No wonder these words are so important!
What does this mean for our reading instruction?
Your class has been working hard to sound out CVC words. They’re killin’ it! Yay!
Now you put this sentence in front of your student.
The cat is big!
Student: /t/ /h/ /e/, t-huh-e, te?
Teacher: Don’t sound it out!
I mean, I get why the student is confused! All they’ve been doing is decoding three letter words and now you’re telling them not to sound it out! 🤦🏻♀️#thanksEnglish
Clearly, students may misunderstand which words should be memorized vs. sounded out.
They may mistrust the process of learning phonics skills when they don’t always work.
They may give up.
Obviously this is not what we want. We want to encourage and empower our new readers! 💪
Explaining the Difference to Your Students
I do this by explaining the difference between sight words, high frequency words, and decodable words.
I encourage them that they are doing a great job sounding out words!
Then I tell them that English is sooo tricky! It’s a good thing they have big, strong brains and English is NOT going to fool them! 😉🧠 #growthmindset
I tell them that some words are just tricky rule breakers that you can’t sound them out! Those are sight words. That’s why we have lists, and practice them, and memorize them!
Then I tell them that there are “first grade words” (or whatever the next highest grade is) that they’re going to learn to read early! They have to memorize those words, too. Those are high frequency words. (This gets them soooo excited. They feel so smart because you trusted them with a first grade word. 🤓)
We look for these words in our books, on posters, on the computer. When we find them we cheer! We know these words! #empoweredreaders
We know sight words are important. We know high frequency words are important. If we can impress that upon our new readers, then we are giving them ownership of their learning. What could be better than that? 🤗
Do you have a discussion like this with your new readers? How do you like to teach sight words and high frequency words? I would love to hear your ideas. Let me know below 👇