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February 24, 2014 Tips for Teaching Sight Words and High-Frequency Words By Brian Smith
Grades PreK–K, 1–2

    The terms sight words and high-frequency words are often used interchangeably, however there are differences between the two. To explore how they vary, first we must remind ourselves that there are six types of syllables. In addition, The Wilson Reading System systematically introduces one exception to each of these syllable types. There are also several spelling rules.

    These rules (the syllables, their exceptions, and the spelling rules) are how approximately 85 percent of the words in the English language are spelled. If you have students who are struggling with learning to read and you aren’t familiar with the syllable types, I encourage you to research them and/or find training so that you will know how to help your students.

    Ethan spelling with letter pillowsNow, let’s move on to the difference between sight words and high-frequency words. A sight word is a word that doesn’t follow the rules of spelling or the six syllable types. These words have to be memorized because decoding them is not possible. High-frequency words are words that a student needs to know and can be decoded, but they follow rules that a student may not learn until after they need to be able to read them.

    Just to throw one more term into the mix, The Dolch Word List is a list of words that Edward William Dolch, Ph.D. compiled in 1936. The idea was that these were the most frequently used (both sight words and high-frequency words) words and students should memorize them to increase their reading ability.


    Gunner with Letter MagnetsHaving a clear definition of these different terms helps you understand what classification each word falls into when teaching both reading and spelling. In reading, don’t shy away from high-frequency words just because the student isn’t far enough along the scope and sequence to understand the rules that the word follows. What we should all be doing is explaining that these words do follow rules and that you will teach the students the rules when they are ready in the scope and sequence that you are using.

    Telling students they simply need to memorize these words can create misconceptions and mistrust. For students who struggle with reading, these misconceptions can create even more misunderstanding of the code that words follow. Telling students they need to memorize high-frequency words because these words follow rules that just haven’t been taught yet, will increase their understanding and will increase their excitement as they continue down the path of the scope and sequence. Your enthusiasm for these rules will transfer to your student.

    Some ways that my class works on our sight words and high-frequency words are:

    Brady writing

      Micah working on sight wordIn the area of spelling, knowing these rules as well as the differences between these types of words can mean the difference between giving your students a successful spelling list and a spelling list that does little to advance a child’s understanding of the English language. In my experience, spelling lists should not be centered around books that are being read in the classroom, holidays or seasons, or any other “cute” device that teachers often fall back on. 

      When looking at a list of words, look to determine whether this a spelling word list (they follow rules, syllable types, or new sounds) or a vocabulary list (words that are needed for tests or to increase a student’s vocabulary). On top of words that follow the scope and sequence, don’t forget to add two or three sight words.

      One more tip to use when creating spelling lists is to not try to trick the students. Spelling can be difficult enough for many students so I never give the students words like “their” and “they’re” on the same week. Introducing these types of words one week at a time helps cement the spelling and their meanings into the students' vocabulary and writing instead of having them use tricks to only try to pass a Friday test.

      Knowing the difference between sight words and high-frequency words, the rules of our language, and structuring both reading and spelling in a way to help the student understand these rules will go long way to increasing the student’s success.

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    Susan Cheyney

    GRADES: 1-2