High-frequency words — those words that beginning readers and writers need to know "by heart," and that do not always have predictable spelling patterns — account for about half of the words we read and write. How can primary teachers help children learn these words which are so important for reading and writing?
One method of teaching high-frequency or sight words is through the use of a Word Wall, a strategy presented by Patricia Cunningham in her book Phonics They Use: Words for Reading and Writing. If you haven't seen a Word Wall before, it goes something like this: The teacher selects four or five words each week and adds them to a bulletin board or wall in the room. The words are written with a thick black marker on heavy paper, and then cut out around the outline of the letters so that each word has it own unique shape. Some teachers also use several different colors of paper as another tool for helping students distinguish among the Word Wall words. The Word Wall has sections for each letter of the alphabet, and the words must be visible to all students, so it takes up a considerable amount of space in the classroom.
What words do teachers choose? Words from a high-frequency word list, from a basal or trade book, or which the children request or frequently misspell in their own writing are usually the best ones to use. Major spelling patterns need to be represented on the Word Wall, and can be used to spell additional words. For example, if the word "ate" is on the Wall, students can use the pattern to spell "gate," "late," "date," and so on.
A typical week using the Word Wall might be:
Monday: Introduce the words for the week. Students write the words on a paper, then clap and chant them as they correct their own papers.
Tuesday: Dictate a sentence using words from the Wall, then repeat it word by word as students write it down. Remind students to begin the sentence with a capital letter, and end it with the appropriate end mark.
Wednesday: Ask students to write down a word which rhymes with a Word Wall word you say. For example, "Number 1 begins with a 'g' and rhymes with 'ate'."
Thursday: Play "Be a Mind Reader" — always a popular game with students! Think of a word on the Wall and give the students five clues to guess the word.
Friday: Give a quiz on the Word Wall words.
Short daily activities in which all students are actively involved can help students to learn the Word Wall words, and ultimately, improve their reading and writing skills!