- Research shows that high-frequency “sight words” are a necessary and indispensable part of an early reading curriculum to create authentic practice opportunities in reading (Steacy et al., 2020; Strauber, C.B. et al., 2019; Gibbon et al, 2017; McArthur, 2015; Denton & Otaiba, 2011; Meadan et al, 2008; Nicholson, 2005; Ehri, 2005; Carnine et al., 2004; Shaywitz, 2003; Rivera, Koorland & Fueyo, 2002; Hiebert & Fisher, 2002; National Reading Panel, 2001).
“Particularly in the early stages of reading acquisition, there are advantages to using texts with a high density of known high-frequency words and decodable words: These texts (1) allow students to apply skills and strategies (e.g. sounding out words) in context in which these strategies will “work” for most of the words in the text, increasing the probability of successful reading experiences, and (b) ensure that students receive many opportunities, within a single reading of text, to pronounce important words multiple times (Hiebert & Fisher, 2002” (Focus on Exceptional Children, Denton and Otaiba, 2011).
- High-frequency words can be memorized, before the required letter sounds are taught, to start building a sight vocabulary necessary to begin authentic practice for newly introduced decoding skills (Strauber, C.B. et al., 2015; McArthur, G. et al., 2013; Al Otaiba, S. et al., 2011; Denton CA & Al Otaiba S., 2011; Nicholson, 2005).
“While phonics instruction is often used both to bolster acquisition of high-frequency sight words and to allow for decoding of other words, explicit memorization is especially advantageous for words that are not phonetically transparent” (Journal of Learning and Instruction, Strauber, 2019).
- As letter patterns/sounds are learned, high-frequency sight words should be introduced in an order that would allow them to be orthographically mapped whenever possible (e.g. “had” when /h//a//d/ have been introduced or the student knows those letters/sounds) (Ehri, 2014; Kilpatrick, 2015, Steacy et al., 2020).
David Kilpatrick describes three levels of reading development: Level 1: Letters and Sounds: Children learn letter names and letter sounds. Level 2: Phonics Decoding: Children combine letter-sound knowledge with phonological blending to sound out unfamiliar words. Level 3: Orthographic Mapping: Children efficiently expand their sight vocabularies.” “Efficient orthographic mapping presumes workable phonic decoding skills, which is why it is represented as a level beyond phonic decoding” (2015). Linnea Ehri also describes this in phases: pre-alphabetic, partial alphabetic, full alphabetic and consolidated alphabetic(2014). More on these below.
- As new letter pattern/sounds are introduced, high-frequency sight words should be re-examined by the reader (with the help of the teacher if necessary) and mapped appropriately. (e.g. “that”, map out with the /th/ sound when it has been introduced) (Ehri, 2014; Kilpatrick, 2015).
“In full alphabetic phase, readers decode to bond each letter in the spelling with a phoneme in the pronunciation. As readers begin to recognize sight words and partial spelling occurring with regularity in print (e.g. ing, tion) they become consolidated alphabetic readers, capable of quickly assembling sight chunks into multisyllable words, allowing them to rapidly expand their sight vocabularies” (Murray, B.A., Mcllwain, M.J., Wang, C., Murray, G., Finley, S., 2019).
“Children become full alphabetic phase readers when they can learn sight words forming complete connections between letters in spelling and phonemes in pronunciation. This is possible because they know the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences (Venezky, 1970, 1999) and they can segment pronunciations into phonemes that match up to the graphemes they see” (Scientific Studies of Reading, Ehri, 2014).
- Highlighting pieces of words that are irregular (e.g. the word “have”) is appropriate only after the most common use of the letter patterns have been learned (McArthur, G. et al, 2013; Murray, B.A. et al., 2019; Kilpatrick, 2015).
“Mental marking off irregular spelling elements in words seems to require the spelling-pattern recognition that characterizes the hierarchical full alphabetic subphrase. Sequential decoders, locked into letter-by-letter process of sounding out and blending, are not similarly disposed to detect spelling patterns, whether the regular patterns in digraphs, vowels or the anomalous patterns occasioned by irregular spellings” (Murray et al., 2019).
“Because correctly identifying exception words requires a more highly developed degree of orthographic skills, this study suggested that the more automatic and proficient the phonemic awareness, the more well developed were the students sight vocabularies” (Kilpatrick, 2015).
- There are many effective, research-supported ways to practice high-frequency sight words, including flash cards (Steacy et al., 2020; Farrell, Hunter & Osenga, 2019; McArthur, G. et al, 2013; Al Otaiba, S. et al., 2011; Shaywitz, 2003), games (Erbey et al., 2011; Ersland, 2014; Sullivan et al., 2013; Wells & Narkon, 2011; Kaufman et al., 2011; McLaughlin et al., 2009; Garris, Ahlers, & Driskell, 2002), word walls (Steacy, L.M. et al., 2019; Kocaarslan, M. & Yamac, A., 2015; Southerland, 2011; Yates, Cuthrell & Rose, 2011; Harmon et al., 2009; Jasmine, J. & Shiesl, P., 2009; Jasmine & Schiesl, 2009; Meadan, H. et al., 2008; Kent, 2006; Brabham & Villaume, 2001; Walton, 2000), and in context, such as decodable readers and fluency passages (Denton C.A. & Al Otaiba S., 2011; Al Otaiba, S. et al., 2011).
On Practice in Context: “Growing evidence suggests that student awareness of word meanings (Taylor, Duff, Woollams, Monagham, & Ricketts, 2015) and word familiarity (e.g. Kearns et al, 2016) contribute to word reading accuracy. Students are more likely to read a word correctly if that are familiar with the word or they have knowledge of the meaning of the word” (Steacy et al., 2020).
List of Educational Journals and Books used to write this blog.
Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Reading Horizons: A Journal of Literacy and Language Arts, Journal of Theory and Practice in Education, PeerJ, Journal of Learning Disabilities, Journal of Assistive Technology Outcomes and Benefits, Journal of Research in Reading, National Reading Panel, Reading Disabilities (Pearson), Overcoming Dyslexia (Vintage), Annals of Dyslexia, Scientific Studies in Reading, What Research Has To Say About Reading Instruction (International Reading Association), Focus on Exceptional Children, The Journal of Special Education
I love the “Science of Reading” movement. It is a movement driven by the idea that instruction in classrooms should be based on evidence (not anecdotal), research, and proof of what works. In my opinion, the movement is meant to weed out promoting opinions of what works (It isn’t the “Opinion of Reading”) and promote only what is already proven until new theories are put to the test. This blog will discuss the research behind high-frequency sight word acquisition.
What is a high frequency sight word?
A “high frequency” sight word is a word that shows up very often in print, especially for early readers. Words such as “the”, “you”, “to”, and “one”. Shaywitz describes in her book “Overcoming Dyslexia” that since these words “are sure to be found in children’s books, it is important that they become part of a child’s reading vocabulary at a very early stage“ (2004, p190). To have authentic practice with decoding, a certain amount of high frequency words are necessary (Steacy et al., 2020; Strauber, C.B. et al., 2019; Gibbon et al, 2017; McArthur, 2015; Denton & Otaiba, 2011; Meadan et al, 2008; Nicholson, 2005; Ehri, 2005; Carnine et al., 2004; Shaywitz, 2003; Rivera, Koorland & Fueyo, 2002; Hiebert & Fisher, 2002; National Reading Panel, 2001).
Is there research that shows teaching high-frequency sight words is beneficial to beginning readers? Yes!
Research about the benefits of teaching high-frequency sight words:
|“It is advantageous for beginning readers to learn to recognize [high-frequency] sight words. A child who can instantly recognize the 100 most common words has the base needed to read the majority of a typical text. In many classrooms, children are taught to immediately recognize these high-frequency words by sight. Recognizing words by sight is how experienced readers process written words with which they are familiar (Ehri, 2005) and especially teaching these high-frequency sight words to children can help jumpstart this strategy of reading.” – Journal of Learning and Instruction, 2017|
|“Thus, the current study joins McArthur et al. in suggesting that specific [high-frequency] sight word training paired with specific phonics training has large and significant valid treatment effects in typical samples of poor readers. It also supports the idea that poor readers should be taught to read via both phonics and sight word strategies (e.g., Heilman, 1968; Nicholson, 2005).” – Journal of Learning Disabilities, 2015|
|“Of particular importance in developing early reading foundation skills is the development of [high-frequency] “sight word” reading competencies. Reading sight words is necessary for young children’s independence, safety, and more mature reading experiences as they grow older and progress in the public school curriculum (Carnine, Silbert, Kame’enui & Tarver, 2004; Ehri, 2005, National Reading Panel, 2000; Rivera, Koorland & Fueyo, 2002).” – Journal of Assistive Technology Outcomes and Benefits, 2008|
|“Consistent with past research, the results of this study indicate sight word intervention games in remedial reading programs are highly effective on [high-frequency] sight word achievement for first-grade students (Dickerson, 1982; Erbey et al., 2011; Ersland, 2014; Kaufman et al., 2011; McLaughlin et al., 2009; Sullivan et al., 2013).” – Journal of language and literacy development, 2017|
|“Sight words and high frequency words need to be taught explicitly alongside letter sounds when teaching reading and writing in the early years.” – Scan: NSW Journal, 2019|
|“Since [high-frequency] sight words are sure to be found in children’s books, it is important that they become part of a child’s reading vocabulary at a very early stage. Making flash cards and reviewing them regularly helps a child learn these common words.” – Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2003|
|“Programs that focus too much on the teaching of letter-sounds relations and not enough on putting them to use are unlikely to be very effective. In implementing systematic phonics instruction, educators must keep the end in mind and ensure that children understand the purpose of learning letter-sounds and are able to apply their skills in their daily reading and writing activities.” – National Reading Panel, 2001|
How should high-frequency sight words be taught?
The research shows that high-frequency sight words are essential to create authentic practice for early readers. If a student has the necessary phonemic awareness and phonics skills, they should decode (“sound out”, “map”) the word to bond it to their memories (this is known as “Orthographic Mapping”). When the high-frequency word contains letter patterns they have not learned yet, the word should be memorized as a whole unit, then mapped at a later stage by the student when the required letters/letter patterns have been introduced. There are irregular sight words that do not follow the common rules. After the students have learned the common rule, they will naturally be able to pick out the discrepancy (Ehri, 2014). These words can then be taught by telling the student that those irregular parts just need to be remembered.
The differences in how to teach high-frequency sight words is where there is some debate in the “Science of Reading” community. Should essential high-frequency sight words be memorized as whole units, or Orthographically Mapped by the teacher for introduction to the students?
What is Orthographic Mapping?
“Orthographic mapping refers to the process of connecting letters in the spellings of words to sounds in their pronunciations. This become possible once readers learn the alphabetic writing system, that is, how letters systematically symbolize sounds and how to distinguish those sounds in pronunciations of the words” (Miles & Erhi, 2019).
Research shows that Orthographically Mapping words leads those words to be cemented in a readers memory. These cemented words, and the patterns contained in them, then allow students to encounter any number of new words in the future and break them down using those patterns (Ehri, 2004). In order to do that mapping, the student needs to have firm understanding of the letter patterns in the word, or in the case of irregular words, they need to have an awareness that a part of the word “doesn’t follow the rule”.
Some people believe that high-frequency “sight words” should never be memorized as whole units, and that teachers should map words to introduce them to students, starting right from the beginning of learning to read. This includes students in Kindergarten, early First Grade, or any age where a student is at the beginning of their journey to reading and has very limited phonemic awareness and/or phonics knowledge.
This teacher-created mapping entails pointing out which parts of the word follow common phonics rules, so the child can “read” that part, and pointing out which parts do not follow the common rules and telling students they need to memorize that exception. The trouble is, telling a child that they can read a part of a word based on phonics knowledge only works if that student already has that necessary phonics knowledge. If the student doesn’t, the teacher is instead teaching rules for letter patterns they have not encountered to that point (which are often out of sequence for a systematic approach to phonics introduction) and in some cases explaining that at times those letter patterns don’t follow the rule. This practice is in direct contradiction to what the research states regarding phonics instruction.
Children learn to “decode unfamiliar words by sounding out letters and blending their sounds to form words. This knowledge also enables children to store sight words in memory by forming connections between individual graphemes in the spellings of specific words and their respective phonemes in pronunciation called orthographic mapping” (Ehri, 2021). Orthographic Mapping should be done by the reader, not the teacher. When students are beginning to learn to read, they start by learning the consonant sounds, then move to short vowels, and so on. In speaking of Phonemic Awareness Skills, the National Reading Panel says, “it is prudent to teach one at a time until each is mastered before moving on to the next, and to teach students how each skill applies in reading or spelling tasks”(2001). For example, you would learn the sound that “t” makes, before you would learn the trigraph “tch”. Reversing this would be like trying to teach someone algebra before they learn to do addition. It most likely would not lead to a high level of confidence in their abilities.
“Effective reading instruction for students with reading disabilities is designed so that easier skills form a foundation for more difficult skills. If students attempt to learn the more advanced skills before they have mastered essential pre-skills, they may experience great difficulty or failure” (Denton, C.A. & Al Otaiba, S., 2011).
As stated above, to create authentic practice for the newly introduced decoding skills, a certain amount of high-frequency words need to be introduced (Staecy et al., 2020). For example, the word “the”. This word is usually necessary to build sentences to practice early decoding skills. Let’s say the reader only knows consonant sounds. If you were to orthographically map the word “the” for a that beginner reader, you would need to teach them that “th” doesn’t say two separate sounds, /t//h/. Instead it says /th/ like in the word “think”. However, in this word the /th/ is “unvoiced”, so it doesn’t make that sound, it makes a slightly different variation of that sound. Next, the letter “e” can make a short sound like in the word “get” or long sound like in the word “begin”, but in this word it makes a totally different sound, /u/. This is a lot of information for a student who has only learned consonant sounds up until now!
When should Orthographic Mapping be expected from a student?
Research regarding Orthographical Mapping discusses that there are phases a reader goes through (Ehri, 2004, 2014; Kilpatrick, 2015). The student’s mapping ability’s expectations should increase through these phases.
The Keys of Literacy website states, “Orthographic mapping doesn’t work well for students who struggle with letter sound knowledge or who do not have proficient phonemic awareness skills”. It reports “three intersecting skills must be in place to enable orthographic mapping (Ehri, 2014; Kilpatrick, 2015):
- Highly proficient phonological and phonemic awareness
- Automatic letter-sound correspondence knowledge
- The ability to accurately and quickly decode a word by identifying its sounds letter by letter, and blending those sounds to read the word
Kilpatrick (2015, 2019) suggests that “as students move into grades two and three, they need to become proficient in more advanced phonemic awareness skills to apply the orthographic mapping process. If a student can do a phoneme manipulation task with ease (i.e., deleting, substituting, reversing phonemes), it indicates a higher level of proficiency with phonemes which is correlated with word reading more than blending and segmenting”.
Here’s how Ehri (2014) explains the skills that need to be in place before orthographic mapping can take place:
So why is it being recommended by some in the “Science of Reading” community to have students, in Kindergarten and early First Grade (or older students but without those skills) learn high-frequency sight words through teacher-mapping? What evidence exists that it would be correct to teach a child an exception to a rule that they haven’t learned yet?
The information about the phases at a glance:
Pre-alphabetic (Ehri)/Early Phonological Awareness (Kilpatrick) – Kilpatrick describes this phase as typically in PreK-K.
A reader learning rhyming, alliteration, first sounds, consonant names/sounds; “child read words by remembering visual [e.g. two “o”s in the word “look”] or contextual cues (Ehri, 2004).
It is appropriate for students to memorize essential high-frequency sight words as whole units, using games, word walls, and activities, for the purposes of enabling authentic reading experiences.
Partial Alphabetic (Ehri)/Basic Phonemic Awareness (Kilpatrick) – Kilpatrick describes this phase as typically in K-1.
A reader learning blending, segmenting, adding in short vowel sounds, and other simple letter patterns to build words. “The partial alphabetic phase emerges when beginners acquire letter knowledge and can use it to remember how to read words by forming partial connections in memory” (Ehri, 2004). “A gateway to orthographic mapping” (Kilpatrick, 2015).
Newly introduced high-frequency sight words that can be mapped based on the scope and sequence of letter introduction should be mapped. For example, words like “had”, “sat” and “man” when Short A is introduced. Building an understanding of what Orthographic Mapping is helps readers to understand that words can be mapped, and that as they learn more letter patterns those letter patterns can be inserted into that schema.
Full Alphabetic Phase (Ehri)
A reader learning segmentation, blending, substitutions, high-level letter patterns such as digraphs and long vowel patterns. “When beginners acquire decoding skills and grapho-phonemic knowledge that is used to bond spellings fully to their pronunciation in memory (Ehri, 2004).
A study done by Murray et al., 2019 found that students “scaffolding mental marking with pencil mark on irregular letters aided full alphabetic readers in an untimed reading of the words”. (It should be noted that they found no benefit in doing this for spelling or ” on sight” word acquisition.)
In this stage, as with the one before, new sight words that are introduced during the time when new letter patterns are introduced should be mapped. Also, a re-examination of previously memorized sight words should be done to further cement those connections. For example, taking a fresh look at the word “this” when the /th/ sound in introduced. Words that contain patterns that have now been learned can be marked to indicate exception to rules.
Consolidated Alphabetic Phase (Ehri)/Advance Phonemic Awareness (Kilpatrick) – Kilpatrick describes this phase as typically appearing in second or third grade.
The reader should be “phonemic proficient including phoneme manipulation” (Kilpatrick, 2015).
A reader recognizes, “letter sequences that symbolize blends of graphophonemic units, including morphemes (affixes and root words), onsets, and rimes (e.g., in “string”, the onset is STR and the rime is ING), monosyllabic words that have become sight words, and more frequent spellings of syllables in polysyllabic words” (Ehri, 2004).
In this stage, readers should begin to encounter new words, use their knowledge to Orthographically Map the word, crosscheck the word to access a known word, mentally mark irregular elements and reread to “improve the lexical quality of the spelling in memory” (Ehri, 2004; Murray et al., 2019).
I have not been able to find a study that directly tested, using two randomized groups of students, whether teaching through the “teacher-mapped sight words” method (sometimes called “heart words”) is any more effective than whole-word memorization of high-frequency words before the required letter patterns are learned.
Is there research that “sight word training” (meaning working with words as whole units) is beneficial? Yes!
Research about teaching “sight words” as whole units:
What are some good ways to teach high-frequency words before Orthographic Mapping is appropriate? Research has shown success using games, word walls, flash cards, lists, decodable readers and other activities where the words are practiced in the context of sentences.
Research about approaches to teach high-frequency sight words:
“Games provide a way to keep students engaged and motivated in thinking about and applying concepts and skills, and increase student attention and motivation through active engagement and hands-on participation (Wells & Narkon, 2011). As Golick (1973) stressed, children must take an active part in the learning process. The relatively risk-free environment leaves the student free to practice new skills in a fun, structured learning environment” (Gibbon, J.M., Duffield, S., Hoffman, J. Wageman, J.J., 2017). – Journal of Language and Literacy Education
“In the study, all children did learn during interactive games and reported enjoyment with participation. The interactive games used with these children who are at risk for academic and social-behavior difficulties proved effective for learning sight words and students in the current study learned quickly over a relatively short exposure time” (Meadan, H., Stoner, J.B., Parette, H.P., 2008). – Journal of Assistive Technology Outcomes and Benefits
“Word walls also serve to teach word analysis and to build vocabulary from units of study. Teachers may also use these words to focus on spelling rules (Brabham and Villaume, 2001). Overall, the word wall focuses on mastering high-frequency words that are in texts” (Jasmine, J. & Shiesl, P., 2009). – Journal of Literacy and Language Arts
“Many studies report that word walls are an effective tool in improving literacy skills such as vocabulary, reading fluency, word recognition, and spelling (Harmon, Wood, Hendrick, Vintinner, & Willeford, 2009; Jasmine & Schiesl, 2009; Kent, 2006; May, 2004; Southerland, 2011; Walton, 2000; Yates, Cuthrell & Rose, 2011)” (Kocaarslan M. & Yamac, A., 2015). – Journal of Theory and Practice in Education
|FLASH CARDS or LISTS:|
“The first method involves selecting words from lists of high-frequency words or from selections that will soon be read and providing directed practice for children in reading these words. For high-frequency words, teachers typically put the words on cards, and then drill students until they are able to pronounce the words in less than one second” (Otaiba, S.A., Kosanovich, M.L., Torgenen, J.K., 2011). – Language and Reading Disabilities, Pearson
“Since [high-frequency] sight words are sure to be found in children’s books, it is important that they become part of a child’s reading vocabulary at a very early stage. Making flash cards and reviewing them regularly helps a child learn these common words” (Shaywitz, 2003). – Overcoming Dyslexia, Vintage Press
“Thus, the current study joins McArthur et al. in suggesting that specific sight word training paired with specific phonics training has large and significant valid treatment effects in typical samples of poor readers. It also supports the idea that poor readers should be taught to read via both phonics and sight word strategies (e.g., Heilman, 1968, Nicholson, 2005)” (McArthur G., Kohnen S., Jones K, Eve P., Banales E., Larsen L., Castles, A., 2015). – Journal of Learning Disabilities
“Students are also taught a small number of very useful high-frequency irregular words. Thus children are able to begin to read simple words and sentences very early in the instructional sequence” (Denton and Al Otaiba, 2011). – Focus on Exceptional Children
|IN CONTEXT or DECODABLE READERS: |
“The second way to directly build fluency is to provide practice with the repeated reading of phrases or short paragraphs containing a few (not too many) words the student needs to learn” (Al Otaiba, S. et al., 2011). – Language and Reading Disabilities, Pearson
“To this end, it seems useful to continue to restrict sequential full alphabetic readers to engineered decodable texts in which words are selected for regularity and restricted to taught vowels until they have acquired a solid grounding in silent-e patterns and vowel digraph spellings” (Juel & Roper/Schneider, 1985, Mesmer, 2005) (Murray, B.A., Mcllwain, M.J., Wang, C., Murray, G., Finley, S., 2019). – Journal of Research in Reading
“Competent reading requires skills that extend beyond the single-word level to contextual reading, and this skill can best be acquired by practicing reading in which the words are in a meaningful context” (National Reading Panel, 2001).
“An interesting new development to aid the provision of explicit practice to develop fluency is the use of texts that have been specifically engineered for this purpose (Hiebert & Fisher, 2002). These texts provide ample repetition of high-utility, high-frequency words within a thematic structure to ensure that students receive many opportunities, within a single reading of the text, to pronounce important words multiple times” (Al Otaiba, S. et al., 2011). – Language and Reading Disabilities, Pearson
“Decodable texts may be best thought of as a form of scaffolding that can be gradually phased out as students develop the ability to read more complex words, and teachers may purposefully incorporate non-decodable text and phonics readers when they are appropriate to promote generalization of skills to more authentic reading experiences. These texts are constructed so that they will provide ample repetition of high-utility, high-frequency words and newly learned phonics patterns contextualized within thematic structures” (Denton and Al Otaiba, 2011). – Focus on Exceptional Children
“Since teachers will often not have the time to teach explicitly all of the high-frequency words required, materials should make it possible for students to learn the words’ meanings on their own, providing such things as student friendly definitions for high-frequency words whose meanings cannot be inferred from the context” (Coleman & Pimental, 2012).
About the Author
Christine Hjorth is the author of the Aligned curriculum and intervention program. After being a researcher in the field of education for 20 years, and teaching four different reading curriculums during her time as a First Grade teacher, she decided to write a program that included the components that she found lacking. A curriculum that includes all of the areas that are described by the research to be vital to building strong language arts skills (Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, High Frequency Sight Word training, Comprehension, Spelling and Writing). A curriculum that lines up each area, so that when a teacher is teaching the Short A sound, the students are practicing it across all six areas. A curriculum that is completely built on itself, so that when practicing skills in Week 7 of school, the students are using materials that only have letter sounds and high frequency words that were already introduced in Weeks 1-6, therefore giving students targeted practice, while building independence and self-confidence. A curriculum that is ready-made, explains the research behind “why” to teach something, “what” to cover, and the “how”; the materials that teachers need in the classroom each day. You can find out more information at AlignedEducationalResources.com and on FB at Aligned: a Science of Reading Comprehensive Curriculum.
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