How Important are High-Frequency Words (aka Sight Words) to Reading Instruction?

High Frequency Words, Sight Words, Memory Words, Heart Words…

Call them what you want. What are they? How useful are they? Why have they become so controversial?

Debbie Stange, Individual Needs & Dyslexia Specialist
Head of Course Development


Sight Words, Reading Instruction

The ongoing debate about effective reading instruction is not surprising. It is perhaps the most researched aspect of education.

Those with an academic only perspective will have a unique view about the best way to teach a child how to read based on research.

Those of us who specialise in a particular field such as Speech Pathology or Educational Psychology will have another perspective. Those who are educators may have yet another perspective, perhaps influenced by teaching a range of children with different abilities, backgrounds and experiences.

Whatever the lens, the overwhelming majority of research shows there are five essential skills for reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocab and reading comprehension). High quality literacy instruction and reading programs should include all five.

So, where do high-frequency words / memory words / heart words (hereafter referred to as ‘sight words’) fit in?

Sight words are those words that appear most frequently when reading and writing in the English language. In fact, in texts designed for early readers, the 100 most common words usually represent more than half of the text.

It is useful for early readers to be able to read and understand these words instantly, without decoding. This assists with fluency and therefore comprehension. And this helps build momentum and confidence for children tackling their first readers.

One school of thought: all words are decodable (indeed they are) so sight words are a distraction from phonics

It is true, all words are (at some point in a child’s reading journey) decodable. The question though is how long would it take for a beginner reader to decode every new word before finishing a book? Why wouldn’t we be giving children as many ropes as possible to hold onto as they break the reading code? 

There are many children who are able to hold sight words to memory with ease. There are others that need a little more exposure to hold these to visual memory. And, there are those who find it very, very difficult without explicit activities and practise.

As part of an explicit and systematic literacy program shouldn’t we be giving children every opportunity to feel confident in their reading abilities and skill gains? Don’t we want to empower children as they work towards the ultimate goal of being independent readers?

From experience, exposure to sight words both in isolation and then generalised within a context have been powerful tools to support the reading journey. This is especially true for slow-progress readers.

“Why wouldn’t we be giving children as many ropes as possible to hold onto as they break the reading code?”

Sight words need to be contextualised and taught in a sequence that makes sense for an individual learner

Sight words support reading fluency once they are recalled with automaticity. This means the child can put all their efforts and energy into decoding unfamiliar words as their phonetic skills are developing.

It takes time to learn the 44 phonic sounds in the English language. It takes even more time to transfer this skill into various contexts when decoding and encoding.

Exposing children to common words that support reading fluency allows them to comprehend more of what they are reading and enjoy richer text plots. It also provides cognitive relief from the intensive decoding process. As independent readers, almost all the words we read are from memory.

Introducing choice sight words at the right times, such as sight words that lie beyond current decoding abilities, is a sound approach to reading instruction.

The debates around sight words will continue and maybe that’s not a bad thing as it keeps us on our toes and questioning best-practice approaches to reading instruction. What is unquestionable is the importance of the Big 5, alluded to earlier in this article.

However, for what it’s worth, I say let’s give our children everything we can and that includes the most common words in the English language!

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