How to Help Dyslexic Students with High Frequency Words
High-Frequency words and dyslexia can be frustrating. In reading instruction, educators have a lot of concepts and terms to keep in mind when it comes to teaching “sight words”. We know it is important to help students read words. However, it can be easy to mix up related terms such as sight words, high-frequency words, decodable words, and irregular words.
What are “Sight Words”
Sight words are those that come immediately to your mind without thinking. High-frequency words are the most frequent words used in reading materials. Teaching word recognition is essential for teachers and homeschool parents who are trying to support their students with dyslexia. Let’s explore what these concepts mean and how they can help dyslexic learners succeed when we teach reading.
Irregular and Regular Words
A High-frequency word is defined as one of the most commonly used English words in reading materials, such as “the”, “of”, “to”, “and”, “had” “ran” etc. Some high-frequency words are easily decodable words like “in,” “and,” “had,” and ran”.
Many Irregular Words Are Often Harder to Picture or Define
Other high-frequency words in the English language have a phonetically irregular pattern that is harder to decode with phonics skills. Words such as, “of” and “to” “from”. Many of these words are also function words that are difficult to picture or define which makes them even more difficult to remember.
High-Frequency Words are Important for Students with Dyslexia
Understanding irregularly spelled high-frequency words is the key to unlocking fluency and comprehension when reading or spelling. Being able to recognize them quickly when practicing reading, can free up your brain’s working space so that it can focus on what matters most – understanding meaning!
The History of Teaching High-Frequency Words
For decades, using the whole language method has been common practice to memorize “sight words.” “Sight Word” practice and getting kids to memorize high frequency has been an integral part of the reading program. Well-meaning educators often had students practice recognizing words from large stacks of flash cards. Memorizing Words was considered as important as teaching phonics.
Whole Language Theory Hurts Dyslexic Students
The whole language theory teaches that young learners needed to learn each whole word by rote memorization to become fluent readers. However, these teaching methods are a nightmare for the dyslexic child. Teaching students isolated words through pure memorization can be discouraging for the dyslexic child and is not an efficient use of instructional time.
There is a better way to learn sight words
A sight word is actually any word that a reader decodes automatically without thinking about it. Scientists have uncovered the fascinating phenomenon that when one is learning to read, their brain establishes an intersection that merges visual and auditory language. The brain does not store words in the visual memory but links letter patterns to auditory memory.
Orthographic Mapping is a Bridge
This bridge between seeing written words with our eyes and connecting those words with the sounds is called orthographic mapping – which effectively stores words for automatic retrieval. Teaching kids word identification with orthographic mapping helps all students, especially those with a specific learning disability.
Problems Remembering Sight Words is not Linked to Visual Memory
Although dyslexic readers may face difficulty with word-based tasks, they have just as strong of a visual memory capacity as non-struggling learners when the challenge does not involve reading. Research has revealed that this is true even in spite of their struggles related to literacy.
The Best Way to Help Dyslexic Readers with “Sight Words”
The best type of sight word instruction within phonics instruction is to teach kids to map sounds and letters together. This is known as the alphabetic principle. Many students with dyslexia have an extremely limited ability to memorize whole words. So teaching children new words by pure memorization is not practical to reach reading proficiency.
We need to use Orthographic Mapping to teach ALL Words
Understanding how letters come together to form words and connecting them with sounds is paramount for efficient reading. That’s why orthographic mapping, which links speech sounds (phonemes) with written symbols (graphemes), is so important in formal phonics instruction!
All students can use orthographic mapping to learn words with all types of spelling patterns and phonics patterns. It may take the dyslexic child longer to learn high-frequency words than typically developing students but is a better option than whole-word memorizing. Systematic Instruction in orthographic mapping and phonemic awareness will benefit students in reading all types of new words.
We Can Use Etymology and Pictures Along with Orthographic Mapping
As teachers of dyslexic students or struggling readers, We need to make sure students understand the meaning of the words that we are studying.
Focusing on Meaning Can Help Memory
Teaching students to memorize words is not helpful, but understanding how words work builds vocabulary. It increases the retention of irregular spellings. By looking at etymology and spelling generalizations, we can bridge their learning directly from speech to print in an organized way. A good “sight-word” teaching approach allows the teacher to slowly guide struggling readers toward mastering high-frequency words.
How High Frequency Words Can Be Taught Effectively
Let’s have some fun with high-frequency words.
- Start by having your students say the target out loud without looking at any print.
- Then, let them try to segment each individual phoneme in a tricky irregular word – they can use their fingers or even blocks and felt circles for an added multisensory benefit. Letters that are not saying their usual sound need to be learned by heart so the next steps help with that.
- Take a deeper look into the history of our language, and why sounds may be irregularly linked with letters. For example: Did you know that in the word <two> lies a secret connection to several words? You can trace it right back to its root – twice, twin, between twenty and twilight – just to name a few! So that <w> in the word “two” is not so strange after all.
- It is also helpful to point out related words and structures to increase a student’s understanding of why a word is spelled the way it is. For example: No matter how we pronounce them; does, goes – both come from do and go with a suffix ‘es’ attached. So next time you want to know the correct way to write something just think: Do + es = Does & Go + es= Goes!
- Connect the letters that are saying usual sounds or that are not heard with picture cues to give students an extra memory cue to hold on to.
Pictures and Key Word Sentences are Helpful Memory Cues
Orthographic Mapping and phonemic awareness is the key to sight word memory. Many of the students with dyslexia that I work with are aided by adding visuals directly inside words, my right-brained thinkers have an easier time remembering which letters don’t make their usual sounds. It’s amazing how much a simple picture can help these students out!
Top Eleven Tips For Learning High-Frequency Words
1. Orthographically Map Words
Have students count the sounds they can hear in the word. Use an orthographic mapping template with Elokin boxes to dot the sounds.
2. Write the corresponding letters to those sounds
This helps cement the alphabetic principle and phonics patterns present in the words.
3. Mark the letters you can’t hear or that are saying an unusual or unexpected sound.
They can draw a heart around those letters or an X on letters they cannot hear to emphasize an unexpected spelling (e.g. the letters ai in “said” or the silent e in “have”.)
4. Draw A Picture
Write the words directly in big print and then draw a picture inside that letter or letters.
5. Create A Memory Trigger
Make a “trigger sentence” related to the picture or pictures and the target word.
6. Use Multisensory Writing
If you can spell high-frequency words, it is more likely you can read them. Air Write, Rainbow Write, or Texture Write the words saying the letter names as they write the words. Then underline the word when they finish spelling it and say the word.
7. Look for the History
Explore the Word History and Related Words to discover why a word might have an irregular spelling and see other words that share the same letter and sound such as “come”, “some”, “done”. Or “silent letters” like the <g> in “sign” that is not silent in related words such as “signal” and “signature”.
8. Make A Word Wall
Make a word wall or a word notebook so students can keep track of their progress and review irregularly spelled words they have learned.
9. Do A Word Hunt
Have students take a favorite reading material and highlight all the high-frequency words in the story.
10. Play Some Games
Play games like Bingo, Go Fish, Hot Lava, and Bump to make practicing recognizing words fun.
11. Sort Words
Students can sort words in many different ways.
- Sort them based on a phonics pattern.
- Sort them based on whether they are phonetically regular or irregular
- Sort them based on grammar (e.g. nouns vs. verbs or in both categories.)
- Sort them based on Morphology or Meaning
- Sort them based on spelling rules
Use Research-Based Teaching Methods
Give your struggling students the tools they need to have more confidence as they read. They will remember more words if they have proficiency with phonemic awareness and orthographic mapping. They can also gain more vocabulary knowledge as they learn about how words work by studying morphology.