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Heart Words: A Science-Based Approach to Learning Sight Words

For many years now, I have set up my sight word program with pre-determined lists of words (based on when they appear in our benchmark readers) and encouraged students to practice, practice, and practice so they can be recognised on ‘sight’ 🤓 I have always encouraged students to sound out if they are stuck, but am the first to admit that the repetitive rote learning of sight words was what I was encouraging my students to do.


I am also the first to admit that I love learning something new! 😍  Especially if it might improve my own pedagogical practice and, in turn, the success and confidence of my students.


This brings us to the topic of this blog…





Recently, reading experts and cognitive scientists began to look more closely into the science of how we learn to read, wondering if there isn’t a better way to teach struggling students to learn high-frequency words  – those common words that make-up 50-80% of the text our youngest learners are exposed to. What they discovered is that we shouldn’t be relying on our visual memory when we learn to read, and we shouldn’t be asking our students to learn these words just by sight.



When we encourage the rote learning of high-frequency words, we rely heavily on students memorising these words. We are essentially asking them to see the word as a picture that they can recall when reading. Have you ever been reading with a child and they mix up the words ‘look’ & ‘see’. This is a great example, as it shows the student has learnt that the word ‘look’ means ‘to see’ – and so they use them interchangeably, even though phonetically they are nothing alike. Essentially, in the very early stages of reading, we are asking students NOT to practice the most fundamental skill required for reading instruction – decoding.


Research now shows that we are encouraged to integrate high-frequency words into our regular phonics lessons. As words are introduced, students use their phonetic knowledge to sound out the regular part of the words. And the tricky irregular parts? These are the parts they have to “learn by heart”, thus the name Heart Words.


Not all high-frequency words are heart words though! Take a sight word program like Dolch words for example. Approximately 35% of these words are considered heart words. The rest are words with more regular phonemic spelling patterns.





It can be daunting trying something new after years of teaching in a particular way 🤯 However, the easiest place to start would be to look at your current list of high-frequency words, and examine how they can be matched better to your system of phonics instruction.


Firstly, separate all the words that can be easily decoded and can be incorporated into your phonics lessons. These words don’t need to be separated from easily decodable words like cat, dog and fox.


Next, identify those high-frequency words with irregular spelling patterns (or the TRICKY parts) –  and there are loads! However, these words will generally have a range of letter sounds that students already know, with only one or two letter combinations that need to be ‘learnt by heart’. These can then be introduced into your phonics lessons as they arise, or in a more targeted systematic fashion.


Take the word ‘put’ for example.



Through our phonics instruction, students have learnt that the grapheme p says /p/ and the grapheme t says /t/. They don’t need to know this part by sight, and any chance to practice decoding has to be good right? But the grapheme ‘u’ in this word says /oo/ as in book. This is the part they need to learn by heart!


Another example is ‘said’.



The graphemes s and d can easily be decoded once those phonemes have been taught, and it is just the /e/ sound represented by the ‘ai’ that needs to be learnt by heart.


By doing this, students no longer jump straight to the strategy of guessing these words when they see them. Think of all those times when you are testing high-frequency words and you get saw instead of said, for instead of from, on instead of no and so on. By learning high-frequency words through phonetic decoding, students aren’t asked to recall the word using their visual memory. No guesses. Just good old decoding!


Over the last week, we have added a range of ‘Heart Word’ resources that we hope you find useful in your high-frequency words instruction.


Click here to check out the range!

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