The science of reading tells us that sight words are not stored in our visual memory and therefore we need to integrate sight words into our phonics instruction. In this post, I share information about Heart Words, an effective, phonics-based approach to teaching sight words, as well as a Heart Word Freebie to get you started!
Did you know that as a literate adult you have between 30,000 to 70,000 sight words in your memory? These are words you can read automatically, accurately, and effortlessly. They are considered sight words because, well, you recognize them by sight! But how did they get there?
As a teacher, how do you help your students learn their sight words? The answer is likely, through rote memorization! This is because our intuition (not science!) tells us that words are stored in visual memory. For many years we held the belief that if a student simply saw a word enough times they’d eventually learn it. We sent home words lists for students to study and memorize, and drilled them with flashcards.
While this method worked for some students, why didn’t it work for all? We know there have always been far too many students who struggle to remember new words, even after many exposures.
Recently, reading experts and cognitive scientists wondered if there might be a better way to help these struggling readers. They began to look more closely into the science of how we learn to read. What they discovered is that reading is NOT like visual memory- something else is going on and it should change the way we teach our students.
What Does Science Say About The Way We Learn Sight Words?
In his book Equipped for Reading Success, Dr. David Kilpatrick explains the mental process we use to permanently store words for immediate retrieval. This process is called Orthographic Mapping. It is how we take an unfamiliar word and immediately turn it into a sight word.
In order for students to become “good mappers” Kilpatrick says they must develop three skills: 1) automatic letter-sound associations, 2) highly proficient phoneme awareness, and 3) word study.
He believes that “the word-study aspect is the super-glue that anchors the words in permanent memory”. This means students need explicit instruction on how to connect phonemes (sounds) to the written word.
When trying to teach our kids to read and spell sight words we were relying on memorization and leaving out word study! It was as if we thought sight words were a special set of words that needed to be memorized and couldn’t be learned using sound symbol relationships! We were wrong!
Science now tells us that we need to integrate high frequency “sight words” into our phonics lessons. Students use their phoneme knowledge to map the regular part of the words, then only have to “learn by heart” the sounds that are irregular in the word, thus the name Heart Words.
What are Heart Words?
Heart Words are high-frequency words that appear most often in print. They are the first words we want to anchor into our students’ memory because they appear so frequently in texts. The ability to automatically retrieve these words allows students to read fluently and successfully.
Heart Words vs. Flash Words
High-frequency sight words can be categorized into two groups – Regularly Spelled and Irregularly Spelled.
High-Frequency words that are regularly spelled are called “Flash Words”. We want students to see the word and know it “in a flash”. These words can be decoded using common phonics knowledge and letter-sound relationships. The consonant and vowel letters make the sounds that we expect them to make. Examples of Flash Words include words like did, it, can, and but. 63% of the words on the Dolch 220 list are considered Flash Words.
High-Frequency Words that are irregularly spelled are called “Heart Words” because some part of the word must be explicitly taught and “learned by heart”. Students will encounter these words often so they need to be able to read and spell them automatically. Examples of Heart Words include said, are, do, and where. 37% of the words on the Dolch 220 list are considered Heart Words.
In order to help all students become more successful readers we must integrate high-frequency words into our phonics lessons and explicitly teach our students the irregular spelling patterns for Heart Words.
High Frequency Heart Word Resource
Are you already feeling motivated and eager to begin integrating sight words into your phonics lessons?? Then you’ll want to take a look at my very own Heart Word Resource! It’s an amazing resource that I was so excited to create and am now thrilled to share! It includes teaching slides and student activities for 220 High-Frequency.
Take a closer look and download the High Frequency Heart Word Activities here:
For years I “taught” my students their sight words through rote memorization, but now I’m learning that we don’t store words based on visual memory. Instead of feeling bad about my old methods, I remind myself that once we know better, we can do better!! I’m excited to help you do better and I hope the information I’ve shared today is helpful to you!
Be on the lookout for my next post where I’ll explain what Heart Word instruction looks like in the classroom and share more details about my Heart Word Resource that will help you bring more effective high-frequency sight word instruction to your students!
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