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Sight Words Series: Understanding High Frequency Words! The Untold Story of High Frequency Words

WHAT WILL YOU LEARN ON THIS ARTICLE??
  1. High-Frequency words vs. Sight words
  2. INFOGRAPHIC: The Untold Story of High-Frequency Words
  3. TRUE or MYTHS? Common Beliefs around Sight words
  4. EVEN More Revealing Data!
  5. The 220 Most Commonly Used High-Frequency Words List
  6. The INS and OUTS of the analysis
  7. Recommended Resources
  8. The Video: The Untold Story of High-Frequency Words

High Frequency Words vs. Sight Words

High-Frequency words make up for up 75% of the words used in the English language found  in schoolbooks, library books, newspapers, and magazines.

That is according Edward William Dolch, who compiled this famous list back in the 30’s after analysing the literature of the time. It is worth noting that Dolch was a major proponent of the whole word approach.

Other common high-frequency words (apart from Dolch’s list) used in the school system are: Fry Instant words, or a selection of words  from specific reading programs/ curriculums.

High-frequency words are normally referred as sight words because of two common beliefs extremely rooted in society and in the education system:

  • They can’t be sounded out, so they need to be learn by the way they look (by sight) or pure repetition.
  • They have to be learned by sight and stored as images in our visual memory.

These 2 beliefs have major implications in the way these words have been being taught for  decades now, and in the way we think these words are stored in our brain.

However, our analysis* of the 220 most commonly used high-frequency words reveals a different story… 

AN UNTOLD STORY ABOUT HIGH-FREQUENCY WORDS…

The Infographic: The Untold Story of High-Frequency Words

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Interested in knowing more?… keep Reading!

Common Beliefs around Sight words: True or Myths?

Ok, let’s go through the beliefs mentioned on the infographic together…

Based on the analysis and what modern science has found out, are they TRUE or are they MYTHS?

Belief #1:

High-frequency words can’t be sounded out, so they need to be learned by the way they look (by sight) or by pure repetition.

Is this truth or a myth?

Well, actually after an analysis of the 220 most-frequently used high frequency words list, the results are quite revealing…

More than 70 % (71.82 %) of these words are, in fact, decodable phonetically.

What’s more, among these decodable words, almost 40% (37.97%) follow very basic phonic rules.

So, even if it sounds unbelievable (because of the way we have been conditioned to believe), this belief is a myth.

Belief #2:

They have to be learned by sight and stored as images in our visual memory.

This belief implies that the way to memorize and store these words in our brain is as if they were pictures or photographs. In fact, visual memory has been traditional deemed as a key factor for learning to read.

Therefore, the key question is:

Do we really store words as if they were pictures in our brain?

AND…

Is that the best way (most effective way) to remember words and learn about their spellings?

For a long time (due again to how engrained the whole word approach has been on society) we have assumed so.

But: have you ever wondered what this assumption is based on?
Is it based on science or just pure speculation?

It turns out that it is based on speculation and, by no means, on the findings of what modern science has to say about how we learn to read or the specific parts of the brain that are involved in reading…

Brain scans show that the parts of the brain activated while performing visual memory tasks are different than the parts of the brain activated while reading.

These are the parts activated while reading:

  • The temporal lobe: where we recognize sounds, and is responsible for Phonological Awareness.
  • The frontal lobe: the part of the brain involved in speech production, reading fluency, grammar and comprehension.
  • The angular and supramarginal gyrus: the phonological assembly, that integrates it all together, creating the brain circuits (synapses) to the different parts of the brain that are involved in the execution of reading.

All these parts involved work in harmony and synergy to produce the complex task of reading.

Parts of the brain involved in the task of reading. Image credit: OpenClipart-Vectors (https://pixabay.com/fr/users/openclipart-vectors-30363/) in PIXABAY, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

There is no evidence to suggest that visual memory has a role in word recognition /reading fluency once the letters and the connection between letters and sounds have been learned.

As reading instruction still assumes that we store words as visual images, students who struggle to remember words are many times presumed to have poor visual memory.

However, there is only a small relationship between visual memory and our capacity to store words for immediate retrieval while reading.

So, again, this belief a myth…

Unfortunately, this wrong belief has led to the popularity of many “look-say” instructional methods and resources.

ARE YOU CURIOUS TO KNOW EVEN MORE?

EVEN more revealing data!

Digging into our analysis of the 220 most commonly used high-frequency words, we find some more interesting (and revealing) data!:

    • Only 11% of the decodable ones follow what I would consider very advanced phonics rules.
    • Only around 3% of the non-decodable ones are, in fact, 100% non-decodable (meaning that nothing on the word makes sense phonetically). The 2 words (out of the ones analyzed) that make up for this 3.23% are: ‘of’ and ‘a’
    • The most common occurrence among non-decodable high-frequency words is that around a third of the word is non-decodable. A few examples are: said, what, word, his, both, work… All of these words have 3 sounds,  1 of them presenting an unexpected spelling.

The 220 most commonly used High -Frequency Words

You can check the list of the words we analyzed below (even though there are some different versions of Dolch lists -including nouns, not including nouns, etc.-, we based our analysis on the suggested list by Reading Rockets on this excellent article about the topic)

Decodable (71.82%): at am an it in if on off up us had can ran him did will big six sit not got hot but run cut get yes red well let tell ten that with then them this much pick wish when which black and just must fast best went ask its jump help stop sing bring long thank think drink too for or start far her first hurt came take make made gave ate like ride five white been all call fall small ball know I he she be we me go so no my by fly try why play may say see green sleep keep three eat read clean right light own show grow out round found down now how brown look good new soon draw saw after never better under little over old cold hold find kind mind seven upon about around away myself open funny going yellow before every they want wash watch because

Non-decodable (28.18%): from a of you was said what the very your yours don’t pretty four their here two again who eight today could would should were are both one work word world buy guy his is as has have give live some come done to do into there where these those once blue glue clue true put full pull push walk talk any many

The ins and outs of the Analysis

Keen to know even more about the analysis and how we classified these words?

READ ON!

And for a print-out and even more information (including what parts are decodable and not, info on the phonics rules that these words follow and more), check The Golden Document for Understanding High-Frequency Words!

NOTE: Decodable words are classified by difficulty level (1- 4). Please, this is only for your reference, since I do not know what program you are using to teach your child to read! Ideally, you should introduce high-frequency words in line with the materials on the program you are following.
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Decodable - Level 1 (37.97%)Decodable - Level 2
(15.19%)
Decodable - Level 3
(36.08%)
Decodable - Level 4
(10.76%)
Non-decodable
(28.18%)
at
am
an
it
in
if
on
off
up
us
had
can
ran
him
did
will
big
six
sit
not
got
hot
but
run
cut
get
yes
red
well
let
tell
ten
that
with
then
them
this
much
pick
wish
when
which
black
and
just
must
fast
best
went
ask
its
jump
help
stop
sing
bring
long
thank
think
drink

for
or
start
far
her
first
hurt
came
take
make
made
gave
ate
like
ride
five
white
been
all
call
fall
small
ball
too

I
he
she
be
we
me
go
so
no
my
by
fly
try
why
play
may
say
see
green
sleep

keep
three
eat
read
clean
right*
light*
own
show
grow
out
round
found
down
now
how
brown
look
good
new
soon
draw
saw
after
never
better
under
little
over
old
cold
hold
find
kind
mind
know
seven
upon
about
around
away
my·self
o·pen
fun·ny
going
yel·low
be·fore
to·day
every
they
want
wash
watch
from
the
a
of
you
was
said
what
very
yours
don’t
eight
pretty
four
their
here
two
again
who
could
would
should
were
are
both
one
work
word
world
buy
guy
his
is
as
has
have
give
live
some
come
done
to
do
into
there
where
these
those
once
blue
glue
clue
true
put
full
pull
push
walk
talk
any
many

Recommended Resources

 

The Video: The Untold Story of High-Frequency Words

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