High Frequency Words: Get the biggest bang for your buck!

Did you know that the ten most common words in the written English language make up 25% of all written text? It’s kind of crazy to think about. But it’s a huge win when you have a student struggling to learn how to decode. If we can teach them to automatically recognize these ten words, bingo! We’ve already greatly reduced the energy needed to access 25% of all the words they see on a page!

And then, if we add 15 more words to get the top 25 words, we get them to 33% of all written text.

And finally, another 75 words to get the top 100 words, and they are able to access about 50% of all written text.

High-frequency words are simply that: words that appear in text A LOT. Focusing on these words in our instruction is hugely beneficial in taking some of the pressure off of students to decode every single word. Some of them don’t follow decoding rules (such as what) and some of them do (such as and). However, helping students recognize them automatically helps them save their energy for decoding the many words that follow decoding rules and don’t appear frequently enough to justify memorizing them.

SO, how can we help them automatically recognize these words?

Here are a few strategies to get started.

  1. You can’t expose your student to them too much. Research shows that it takes anywhere from 12-40 exposures to a word for a student to recognize it automatically. Have them circle all the the’s in a passage, a menu or a kids’ magazine article. Stick index cards with the words written on them on their bedroom wall or bathroom mirror and use a fly swatter to swat words before bedtime or while they are brushing their teeth.

  2. Utilize as many senses as possible in each exposure. Have your child touch the word, say the word out loud and look at the word every time they read it. Write the word on a whiteboard and have them “trace and erase” each letter while they say the letter name out loud, reading the word one final time at the end. Then do the same word again. Put flashcards in a line on the floor and have students stomp on the word you read out loud, reading it back to you while they stomp it.

  3. Constantly review the words your student seems to have mastered. Once they automatically recognize the word (within a second), keep reviewing it. For a long time! We want to run such deep recognition grooves in their brain that it becomes nearly impossible for them to forget it.

  4. Once they automatically recognize the word, work on the spelling for that word. If they can learn to spell these words automatically, their spelling accuracy will increase by 25-50%. Kind of a big deal. The best strategy for helping students memorize the spelling of unconventional words is to link it to a visual and/or a story. For instance, whenever I teach the word said, we draw a picture of “Sally And I Dance” and say the catch-phrase every time they spell it. Or for the word what, we always ask “What HAT am I wearing?” to remember that the word “hat” is inside of “what”. Connecting meaning to the spelling will escalate the memorization process for students with dyslexia and dysgraphia. Keep checking back for a list of all my high-frequency word spelling stories!