Sight words. High-frequency words. Red Words. Heart words. Who cares what they are called as long as your kids learn them, right? And to a certain degree you are right. But, I do think there are some key differences. So, let’s talk vocabulary and then get to the good stuff—how we teach them to our children.
I used to think that people who harped on the difference between high-frequency words and sight words were making a big deal out of nothing. I honestly didn’t see why it even mattered.
High-frequency words are those words that appear with, well, a high-frequency in written text. They may or may not be phonetically regular. These are the key words that are the glue for written language.
A sight word is any word that you immediately recognize. Sight words are individual to the reader. Your sight word vocabulary and mine will differ. A word is considered a sight word if you can recognize it without needing to decode. It can be phonetically regular or irregular.
So why does it matter? It matters because the goal is for high-frequency words to become sight words. Many people say “sight words” when what they really mean is “high-frequency words.” There is a method for teaching phonetically irregular high-frequency words. So how do we do this? We use a strategy called Heart Words.
To teach heart words, we choose words that are phonetically irregular. If a word is phonetically regular, there is no need to teach it as a sight word. As long as you are explicitly teaching phonics, children can simply decode the high-frequency words you hope to become sight words. Kids only have so much mental desk space, so we want to make sure we aren’t filling that desk space with unnecessary tasks. Use phonics when possible and teach only phonetically irregular words as heart words.
1. Say the word, have students repeat. Use colored squares to identify and count sounds. (Only use sounds, no letter names yet!)
2. Identify the parts that are phonetically regular. Write the letters underneath the colored squares.
3. Identify the parts that are phonetically irregular. Replace the colored square with a heart to show the part that must be learned “by heart.”
4. Have students make notecards that underline the heart part and place a heart above the phonetically irregular part.
5. Continue to practice heart words daily until students can read and write them automatically.
- Draw a line or pull down a colored square for each SOUND, not each LETTER. For example, if you teach the word “catch,” you would have 3 colored squares, one each for c, a, and then tch.
- If it is phonetically regular, but the students have not learned the phonics feature yet, treat it as a heart word. For example, 1st graders should know the word “green,” but have not yet learned ee says /e/. For them, it would be a heart word.
- Teach about 3 a week.
- Try grouping words together that makes sense. Could, should, and would can all be taught at the same time. Some and come can also be taught at the same time.
- Visit Really Great Reading’s Heart Word Magic for more ideas!