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How to Teach High-Frequency Words for Reading and Writing

We learn to how to write high-frequency words by writing and we learn to read high-frequency words by reading.

In this blog post, Diane Snowball, co-author of Spelling K-8: Planning and Teaching, helps us to understand how to teach spelling within the context of writing, including the automatic writing of the most used words: high-frequency and high use words.

The most frequently used words (approx 50) make up about half of the writing that is done by all authors, including students.
A study by Oxford University Press in Australia (2008) found that there are about 300 words used more often than others in Australian students’ writing.
They are listed in order of frequency (see for The New Oxford Word List). Such lists are a helpful guide about useful words for all students to know how to spell automatically, but learning them is more meaningful if students are involved in their compilation as they notice the most frequently used words in texts they read and write.

Even in the first year of school, if you have been involving your students in plenty of Shared Reading and Shared Writing they will soon be able to tell you some of the words they often notice in all of the texts they are reading and trying to spell in their writing.

There is no particular order in which the most commonly used words should be taught and you should not be referring to words in groups by colour or some other device as though there is a magical order for learning them. This is nonsense!

It makes much more sense to learn the words the students are noticing that they want to know how to spell for their writing and also notice the common words that are occurring in their reading. They will be the high frequency words anyway.

Labels like ‘sight words’ also do not make as much sense as referring to them as ‘the words we all use the most in reading and writing’. This is even the best label for the words that you are placing on an alphabet word wall as they are being learned.

Because these words are very helpful for both reading and writing, it makes sense for the students to automatically recognise them when reading, and automatically be able to write them when writing.

Helping students learn to spell and read high-frequency words.

Here are some ways to help students learn to spell and read these words, but do not focus on this until students are at the stage of writing where some words are being spelled the conventional way.

Be very careful not to introduce correct spelling of any words until your students are willing to take risks as writers, trying to write words whether they know how to spell them or not.
Your students will learn much more about words if they continue to explore ways to write words during their independent writing, attempting to:

  • Represent the sounds they hear
  • Thinking about what words look like (because they have seen them in all kinds of reading), and
  • Thinking about other words they know that might be able to help them try new words

Involve students in locating the high-frequency words

To underscore the idea of high-frequency words, ask students to help you to keep a list of the words they encounter most often in their own reading and writing.
Also carefully observe students' writing, and if you notice they are consistently misspelling the same high-frequency word, say,
"I notice you are using that word often in your writing, so let's find out and learn the correct spelling."

It may be very difficult for students to break the habit of a misspelling if they do it for a few weeks. There is a difference between students having a go at an unknown word and students permanently misspelling a word.

When students have learned many of the high frequency words you can give them a chart of the high-frequency words, which students can keep in their writing folder or notebook, personal word wall or display it on their desks.

They can refer to the list when writing and check off each word as they learn it. You could have older students check early in the year if they know how to spell all high-frequency words. If not, they need to set personal goals to learn them.

Learning the words and developing a word wall

Words are selected for students to learn, usually one at a time, unless it makes sense to learn some words together, such as could, should and would.
The word is written on a chart and students talk about anything that surprises them about the spelling of the word.
They may notice:

  • Smaller words within the word
  • That the word is pronounced differently when compared with words with the same spelling pattern (e.g. raid, paid, laid and said)
  • That a word has a different spelling pattern when compared with other words that sound the same (e.g. red, bed, fed and said)
  • That a word has a letter that surprises them (e.g. the letter l in the word walk)
  • How words are built (e.g. from walk to walked and walking).

This sharing of observations helps the students to carefully look at the features of a word.

A note about word walls

The development of a word wall as an alphabetical record of the words students automatically recognise and can spell correctly is particularly important for younger writers and ELL students.
Those words become the backbone of all other kinds of studies, such as learning about sound-symbol relationships.

Words on the word wall that can help with the spelling of other words (e.g. all, an, at, back, bad, best, brother) can also be marked with a star so students may refer to them to help when writing similar words.

Try to have the word wall at a height which is best for students to use and if possible have it near your meeting area so that it can easily be referred to for Shared Reading or Shared and Interactive Writing. Students need to see you model how to use analogy when reading and when writing, using a known word to help with the reading or writing of another word.

Apart from the common high frequency words, your students will also have interests in topics they like to write about or that you may be studying together, so there will be other words that are “high frequency” for your students. Show how your words are organised the same as words in a dictionary or thesaurus and encourage your students to figure out how to organise the words under each letter of the alphabet, demonstrating how this will help them to quickly locate entries in many kinds of references.

3. Word Learning Routine

Teach the following routine to help students learn each word:

  • LOOK at the word carefully so that you can picture it when your eyes are closed
  • SAY the word
  • SPELL the word, almost chanting the letter names
  • COVER the word and picture it in your mind
  • WRITE the word
  • CHECK the spelling, letter by letter

Many students do not realise what you mean when you say:
‘Look at the word’. It means noticing what it looks like:

  • Is there anything that surprises you about the spelling?
  • Is there any part of it that you were spelling wrongly and need to notice how it is spelt?
  • Is there a memory aid that will help you remember the spelling?

Take a photo in your mind. Can you remember it when your eyes are closed?

This is done several times over until the students can write the word quickly and automatically.
It is helpful if they have individual erasable boards for this so they can write and erase the word many times.

Then add the word to a word wall that is preferably displayed in an area where you can easily refer to the words for many future word activities.

When suitable, ask students to try to make new words just by changing the beginning of the known word, such as:

  • Play – may, May, stay, day, way, bay, stray or by adding beginnings (prefixes) and endings(suffixes), such as play – replay, plays, playing, played, playful, playfully and
  • Form compound words, such as playground, playmate, role play.

Other alternatives to rote memorisation

Tips like these help students master words rather than simply memorising them. You can demonstrate and explore these strategies during whole class mini lessons and focus group sessions.

  1. Learn words with the same pattern, such as could, would, should, together, and include others to help remember the spelling (such as shoulder, to remember the l).
  2. Think about how spelling and meaning go together, then link words with related meanings: two, twin, twice (remember the w).
  3. Look for words-within-words: what - hat, was - as, when – hen (helping with the visual look of a word, especially for words like these where just thinking about the sounds heard in a word is not sufficient).
  4. Use memory aids such as "here is in the words where and there."
  5. Build word families starting with a base word (back: backs, backing, backward, quarterback).
  6. Focus on the part of misspelled words that may be causing a problem, such as the ai in said. Link with other words you know with the same spelling pattern (such as rain, train, aid, paid, or pain).
  7. Refer back to words on the word wall when searching for words with a particular sound or spelling pattern so that you are noticing the features of these high frequency words many times over.

Having our students understand how to learn, read and write such commonly used words empowers them every day.




For more details about teaching spelling refer to
Spelling K-8: Planning and Teaching, by Diane Snowball and Faye Bolton
and Focus on Spelling (DVD series), Diane Snowball.
Published by Stenhouse.
Available in Australia from Hawker-Brownlow.

Teachific Resources

Teaching and Learning About Spelling

Spelling: A Suggested Lesson Plan K-6 


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