Is it important to know the difference between high frequency sight words and sight vocabulary in reading?
High frequency sight words and sight vocabulary are terms that some reading teachers might use synonymously.
But despite some similarities, the difference between high frequency sight words and sight vocabulary is important, especially when instructing beginning readers.
In order to understand this more effectively, HowtoLearn.com Phonics expert, JoAnne Nelson, founder of Superbooks.net and author of over 150 books, shared this article to help both teacher and parents.
So, let’s take a look at what these terms mean and how they’re different and why this is important.
High frequency sight words are a bank of about 100 words that are used frequently in text and must be learned by sight.
That means the words are not phonetic and cannot be” sounded out”. They have to be learned. Examples of these words include: the, who, what, of, are, you, is, why, etc.
These are lists of words that show up the most frequently in texts in the English language.
Indisputably, the word “the” is the most frequently used word in the English language and I’ve already used it eleven times at this point.
On the other hand, sight vocabulary are words that relate to you, personally.
They refer to words that you can decode instantly – that is, you can identify them and comprehend their meaning at first glance or sight.
As you read this article, many of the words here are part of your sight vocabulary – you’re able to identify and instantly decode their meaning in a fraction of a second.
For better reading, high frequency words need to become part of a beginning reader’s sight vocabulary.
As you can see, there is a difference between high frequency sight words and sight vocabulary in reading – however, they are also related when it comes to building your reading skills.
However, not all words in your sight vocabulary are high frequency words.
To illustrate this point, your name is in your sight vocabulary – but your name most likely won’t appear on a high frequency word list like the Dolch Sight Word List.
Make sense so far? Now you understand the difference between high frequency sight words and sight vocabulary in reading!
Next, let’s take a look at why learning high frequency words early on is so important.
Since high frequency words can make up around 50% of the text you read, it’s important for readers to be able to access them instantaneously.
Turning high frequency words into sight vocabulary for readers not only speeds up reading, it makes it easier as well.
It takes less cognitive processing for you to grasp these words, which means you can devote more of your attention to other aspects of reading like punctuation, grammar, and words you don’t know.
Building up your word bank with more high frequency words also leads to improved fluency – i.e. being able to read as you would speak.
Fluency contributes to being able to read “conversationally” and naturally, with expression and meaning.
And fluency in turn contributes to greater reading comprehension, because converting high frequency words into sight vocabulary helps build recall until you automatically access the meaning of a word on sight.
Reading therefore becomes more natural and meaningful, compared to if you were struggling to decode each word before moving on to the next.
The Role of Phonics in Reading High Frequency Sight Words and Developing a Sight Vocabulary
When you “decode”, you’re reading a word, breaking it down into its individual letters, their corresponding sounds, their combination of sounds, and as a result, the associated meaning.
Without decoding, you’d essentially be left with a bunch of strange symbols you can’t decipher.
Pretty much what would happen if I were to present this article to you in a different language using an alphabet you don’t recognize.
As a result, in order to decode, you need to know phonics.
This refers to the relationship between letters and combinations of letters, and their specific sounds.
If you look at the reading process on a molecular level, you decode when you break down a word into its graphemes (letters) and corresponding phonemes (the smallest units of sound a word is made up of).
Then, you blend these sounds together to create specific words with specific meanings.
As an adult, this process is pretty much intuitive for you, and comes so naturally it takes a couple of milliseconds, without you consciously having to push the process along.
But how do you teach this to become second nature to kids learning how to read?
3 Tips on How to Teach High Frequency Words to Kids so They Learn Reading in Context
The best way to learn high frequency words and often words in general for beginning readers is within the context of what they are reading.
Many high frequency words and their meanings can’t be visualized or explained as easily as nouns like “cat” and “bat.”
For example, how would you explain words like “the,” “was,” and “can” (not the noun but the verb describing an ability to do something)?
These words make more sense within the context, so using guided reading where you focus on 2-3 focus words can help build children’s contextual understanding of the words and its use.
Using guided reading like the SuperBooks kits for sequential phonics readers – which have a list of focus keywords at the end – you can help consolidate children’s word banks with high frequency words.
Point the keyword out whenever you encounter it and explain the role it plays in the text.
For example, if the focus word is “the,” point out how “the” refers to something specific, rather than “a.”
“A tree” could be any tree, but “the tree” is a specific one.
Engage your students by asking them questions (“Which tree is the character talking about?”), repeating sentences with the focus word together, and pointing it out for you in the text.
2. Irregular Words
For example, “the” and “be” – despite ending in the same letter “e” – sound different.
Similarly, “to” and “do” end with a longer vowel sound, when “go” ends with a shorter vowel sound.
The best way to approach these irregular words again is through continuous in-text reading.
Isolating these words to teach kids works to some extent – holding up flashcards, spelling the word in unison, chanting it together as a class, etc. reinforce the word in students’ memory.
But it is when they are encountering specific words in multiple texts and building instant recognition of the word, it’s sound, and meaning, that it becomes a sight word.
Read the word out, ask the children to repeat it with you, to read out sentences using the word and to create sentences with the word in it.
The more they see these words in practical use, especially as they may use high frequency words in everyday life already despite not yet being able to read them, the more intuitively they decode them.
Thus, although there is a difference between high frequency sight words and sight vocabulary in reading, raising great readers involves converting high frequency words into sight words.
Phonics is all about being able to associate graphemes to phonemes, and decoding is about segmenting and blending these sounds together.
But what about high frequency words which sound the same but are spelled differently and mean different things?
Some lessons thus ought to focus on homophones, like “two,” “to,” and “too” – all high frequency words which should become part of a good reader’s sight vocabulary.
By being able to instantly recognize and differentiate words which sound the same but have different meanings, children improve their fluency and as such their reading comprehension.
Remember not to overwhelm your beginner readers.
One session can focus on a set of homophones – like “two,” “to,” and “too” – and how they operate differently in text.
You can engage kids by asking them to point out the different words in context, guess which of the homophones should go where in a specific sentence, etc.
Such activities can be as interactive as you like.
For instance, word cards of each of these words and be provided so children can pick up the card they think is the right answer and slot it into the appropriate blank space.
The goal, ultimately, is to convert high frequency words into sight words for improved fluency and reading comprehension.
Although there is a clear difference between high frequency sight words and sight vocabulary in reading, they are closely related.
Hopefully, this article has not only made the distinction between these two terms clear, but also helped guide you on the importance of teaching high frequency sight words; and helping beginning readers develop a sight vocabulary which includes irregular words as well as decodable words.
At SuperBooks.net we believe that a combination of phonics and context clues (or cues) is a great way to expand a student’s sight vocabulary of instantly recognizable words.
Any questions? Share your thoughts with us in the comments and JoAnne will reply to them!
JoAnne Nelson is the author of award-winning SuperBooks and a foremost expert in using phonics to help kids read in under two weeks.
She has written more than 150 inspiring books for sequential phonics readers that both teachers and parents love because the lesson plans are done for you and kids successfully read very quickly!
Visit SuperBooks.net to view SuperBooks Kits and Story Packs for use at home or in classroom.
SuperBooks are the original phonics-based “little books” program that has been successfully teaching children to read for over 40 years!
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