High Frequency Words: It's Time to Differentiate

If they already know the word, why do you keep teaching it?!

High frequency words are those that are most common and can be recognized by sight.


When teaching high frequency words, it is important that instruction is based on individual student need. Not all children learn the same words at the same rate, in the same way, or with the same rate of progress.


So... you more than likely will have students in the same group with different word needs. That's OK!


Hence, the need for differentiation. Differentiated instruction is designed to meet the needs of individual students.


Like Specially Designed Instruction... (see what I did there?) It all comes back to SDI...


When you are considering HOW you are going to provide high frequency word instruction, gone are the days of flash cards. DO NOT do that!


Instead, we can use word cards in a more productive, flexible way to create recognition of the word using visual imagery.


Here's the HOW:


  1. First, determine the high frequency words that the student already knows. You can use the Fry or Dolch word list/assessment, as these are both commonly available.

  2. Next, identify the words that are not recognized immediately. Remember, high frequency words are quick! You can color code/symbol code the assessment to easily identify words that are fast (almost mastered), medium (working on it), and slow (the word is either new or unfamiliar).

  3. Words should be written individually on index-type cards, in lower case, bold letters. Neatness matters.

  4. Organize the words into 3 piles: those that can be said fast, medium, and slow.

  5. Do some symbol imagery exercises with each word to ensure that the student has visual memory of the word. An example of a routine to reinforce symbol imagery includes:

  • Teacher (T) holds up the word card and says "This word is like".

  • T says, "What word is this?" Student (S) says like.

  • T says, "Yes, the word is like". (T covers the word with her hand.)

  • T says, "What letters did you see in the word like? S says, l-i-k-e.

  • If S does not say all letters, T will uncover the word, S sees it again, and is able to say all letters.

  • T provides corrective feedback until the word is correct.

  • Student "air writes" the word in the sky just above the eye line so the eyes track up to write the word as he says the letters.

  • OR Student writes the word on the table with a finger, saying the letters as he writes.

  • T can also provide additional challenges by asking for deletions and substitutions. (These more challenging skills would not be appropriate for slow and unfamiliar words).

  • T shows, then covers the word. "What is the second sound in like?" S says /i/.

  • Keeping the word covered, T says "Say like. Now say like, but instead of /l/, say /b/. (S says bike.)

The goal with all high frequency word instruction is to move students' word knowledge from slow and unfamiliar to fast and mastered. Words should be reinforced with repetition, word games, and independent or partner practice.


This is most effectively done with a word routine that includes imagery so that students can commit the word to visual memory. Routines including imagery also provide engagement that you are not getting from flash cards. (No flash cards!)


The MOST important thing to remember, is that children learn words so that they can read. And the more words they know, the better.


So stop teaching them words they already know, and differentiate already!!


Inclusiveology supports school communities with SDI, differentiating instruction and all things inclusive.


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