Sight Words, High-frequency Words, Irregular Words: Understanding the Differences
High-frequency words (Dolch), irregular words, sight words: these terms are often used as if they have the same meaning. However, there are important differences.
First, we must understand the term decodable words. These words are read by converting letters to sounds and blending those sounds to form a word. With basic decoding strategies, a student can read words such as in, on, and.
High-frequency words are words that appear often in text. These words can be decodable or non-decodable.
Irregular (non-decodable) words fit into two categories.
- Words that are phonetically irregular, such as of, done.
- Words with higher-level phonetic concepts, such as you, they, for.
Eventually, these words with higher-level phonetic concepts will be decodable, but they must initially be taught as words to be memorized. CR Success refers to irregular words as T.R.I.C.K.y Words and our approach to teaching them is distinctively different from the way we teach decodable words.
The term, sight words, simply refers to the method of teaching. When teaching sight words, teachers are telling students to look at the whole word and memorize it. All words can be taught this way. However, research recommends that students learn phonics so their working memory is not used for learning large numbers of sight words. Proficient readers still look at every letter when processing a word. With repeated touches, words are stored in memory.
The chart below describes the first twenty high-frequency words. These words are taught as sight words in a typical Kindergarten. However, in CR Success programs, teachers can reduce this list by more than half.
When to Teach T.R.I.C.K.y Words
We strongly believe that students should not be taught to memorize whole words until after they have a solid understanding of the alphabetic principle. Students need to have a firm grasp on how letters and sounds systematically work together to form words. The “big picture” for students to know is that the vast majority of words are decodable and can be read by applying sound-symbol correspondences. Skilled readers understand that the spellings in the word match up to the phonemes in its pronunciations. Students will then learn that a smaller number of words are irregular and must be memorized.
If all words are approached as words to memorize, students become “word guessers.” They will rely heavily on context and pictures, while guessing by the first sound or the visual configuration of a word. They will read with less accuracy and fluency and they will form incomplete connections to the words.