Saturday, February 25, 2012

High frequency words

On our Sounds-Write courses, I’ve noticed that an increasing number of practitioners working in schools teaching phonics seem to believe that the three hundred high frequency words included in the Letters and Sounds manual should be taught as ‘sight words’.

What is the answer to this?
First, we think it’s a bad idea to teach ‘sight words’ or words which teachers think need to be memorised by heart. In fact, we go as far as to say that, because it has become synonymous with ‘sight words’, the term ‘high-frequency words’ should be accompanied by a reading and spelling health warning.

Second, the term ‘high frequency’ has become so clichéd, it seems, in the minds of some teachers, to have become detached from its meaning. What ‘high frequency’ means is that the words in the list are the most commonly occurring words in children’s books and stories. However, being the most commonly occurring words in children’s books and stories doesn’t mean that all of them are complex to teach.

In the list of the first one hundred high frequency words the following are relatively straightforward to teach:

2 and VCC6 in VC, 10 it VC, 14 on VC,
18 at VC, 20 but CVC, 21 that CVC, 
22 with CVC, 25 can CVC, 27 up VC, 
28 had CVC, 34 this CVC, 36 went CVCC, 
41 not CVC, 42 then CVC, 48 mum CVC, 
50 them CVC, 54 dad CVC, 55 big CVC,
56 when CVC, 57 it’s VCC, 64 will CVC, 
66 back CVC, 67 from CCVC, 69 him CVC,
71 get CVC, 72 just CVCC, 77 got CVC, 
91 if VC, 92 help CVCC, 96 off VC, 100 an VC.

[The number preceding the words in the list corresponds to the place in which the word appears in the list of 100 high-frequency words in Letters and Sounds.]

If you look carefully at all of the thirty-two words above, you can see very clearly that almost all of them are comprised of one sound/one letter spellings. Indeed, most are either simple VC (‘it’) or CVC  (‘big’) words. The level of complexity in these words increases slightly with the introduction of the idea that a sound can be spelt with two letters (‘will’, ‘back’).

From a structural point of view, the complexity also increases slightly with the inclusion of adjacent consonants in words which take the form VCC, CVCC and CCVC (‘and’, ‘help’ and ‘from’). Having said that, all of these words are very easy to teach and to learn.
So, in the list of one hundred high frequency words, at least a third of them are very or relatively easy to teach.

Tomorrow – what to do with words containing more complex spellings?

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