Heart Words, Sight Words, High Frequency Words: What’s the Difference

Heart Words, Sight Words, and High Frequency Words: What's the Difference Cathy Collier

Heart Words, Sight Words, High Frequency Words, Red Words, Snap Words, Flash Words…what else have you heard?

I know there is a lot of confusion about Heart Words, Sight Words, and High Frequency Words.

Let’s talk about each one. (Hang on! This blog post is a long one!

High frequency words

Heart Words, Sight Words, and High Frequency Words: What's the Difference Cathy Collier

One of the conversations in Jan and Kari’s book, The Six Shifts, is about the difference between the two terms high frequency words and sight words.

High frequency words by definition are words that are seen most frequently in reading.

In the cut and dry world of counting and calculations, high frequency words are words that researchers have discovered show up most frequently in written language.

For example, the word “the” is without a doubt a high frequency word. One out of every 20 words written in English is the word “the.”

There are 13 high frequency words that make up more than 25% of words in print:

the,  a,  to, and, was, for,  you, is, of, and, in, that, he

However, giving students a list of high frequency words to memorize can be quite detrimental.

Not all high frequency words can be “ sounded out“ and may be multi-syllabic.

These lists (Dolch and Fry are the most known) contain words that range dramatically in features. For example, “please” is on the primer Dolch word list.

Students need to be taught vowel patterns and one of the rules of the ending “e” to make that word permanent.  “Other” is on the Fry First 100 Word List.

Again students need to be taught the schwa “o” sound, the digraph th and the r-controlled vowel pair “er” to ensure this word is a known word for reading and writing.

Because these words are seen so frequently it is more than beneficial for our students to master reading these words and turn them into sight words.

Sight Words

A sight word by definition is a word that can be read instantly and without effort when the child sees the word in reading.

It can be also be known as “flash words” or “snap words” because we know them in a “flash” or at a “snap.”

Developing children will expand their sight word vocabulary rapidly throughout their early school years. An adult has 10s of thousands of sight words stored in their brain.

In order for these words to be stored in our brains for quick retrieval they have not been memorized.

Heart Words, Sight Words, and High Frequency Words: What's the Difference Cathy Collier

Science confirms we do not store words as a whole, but read letters and parts of words every time we see a word. We just get more and more proficient to recall the parts quicker and the word can be blended and read with little effort.

In order for our brains to “know” a sight word, we have to ensure students are doing orthographic mapping.

Orthographic mapping has been scientifically proven as a way that we store spelling correspondences in our brain.

Orthographic mapping is looking at each of the phonemes in a word and being able to blend them together quickly and essentially “without thinking.”

Sight words are words that can be orthographically regular or irregular. To try and lump all sight words into a category of “Words We Can Sound Out” is incorrect.

“The” is, again,  the perfect example. As discussed earlier, “the” is a high frequency word. “The” quickly becomes a sight word with the frequency that it is read and a little bit of instruction about the word.

That’s where heart words come in.

Heart Words

Heart Words, Sight Words, and High Frequency Words: What's the Difference Cathy Collier

Heart Words or Red Words, as labeled in the Orton Gillingham method of teaching, describes a group of words that parts of the words need to be taught in order to create words that are automatic.

A regular sight word might be the word “can.”

Each of the letters c, a, and n have regular sounds and a student with letter/sound knowledge can say each sound and blend those sounds together to say the word “can.”

Not all words are that easy.

Some words have irregular parts the irregular parts are parts we need to “learn by heart” and we need to teach strategically.

Let’s go back to the word “the.” This word is actually quite complicated, yet we know students need to read this very quickly.

We need to have a conversation with students about what these letters are doing in this word that does not have a regular letter/sound connection.

At first glance the word should have a sound for the T, followed by a sound for the H, followed by the open syllable long E sound. But we know this is not the case.

The TH is a digraph when put together makes one new sound and the E is typically read as a schwa and can sound like a short U. (Rarely do we say the word the with a long E sound at the end.)

“The” is also a great example of a word that has a temporary “heart part” and a permanent “heart part.”

For temporary heart parts or temporary heart words, students are given instruction and understand that the T and H together make that new digraph sound.

Once that instruction has been understood, it’s no longer a part students have to memorize, they automatically understand reading the TH together.

However, the E at the end of the word is a permanent “heart part.”

Heart Words, Sight Words, High Frequency Words: What's the Difference

It does not follow the regular pattern of an open syllable or having a sound of a short E.

It is a short u sound and something we have to learn “by heart”, hence “Heart Words.”

In sight word sets that I have created, there are 144 sight words. These words are also high frequency words and are seen in many early readers.

Many of those sight words are also heart words. There are 84 heart words in the set.

Heart Words, Sight Words, and High Frequency Words: What's the Difference Cathy Collier

These heart words have the heart designation over the part of the word that should be learned by heart.

There also may  be multiple cards for one word. This is to allow a teacher to choose what their student needs based on their personal instruction.

“The” word cards contain a heart over the TH and a heart over the E in one card and on a separate card there is just the heart over the E.

If your students already know the TH, it is not a heart part anymore.

Teaching students parts of a word allows them to map those parts and to quickly retrieve the parts to blend and make new words.

Heart Word Sight Word SAMPLE
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Years ago, I had conversations with teachers about teaching students the “architecture” of a word.

Teaching them what that word is made-up of parts in the brain that are stored for quick retrieval and used to read and  learn new words.

Sight Word Practice in small groups provides more practice!

Here are some sight word options to fit any decor in my store. Bees, Cactus, Donuts, Flamingos, Frogs, Ocean Life, Pencils, Pineapples, Stars, and Sunflowers.

If you would like a free sample of 10 words make sure to fill out the form above to get the sample. This form will add you to my e-mail list and keep you up to date with new blog posts, teaching tips and new products.

Cathy Collier

Resources for this post:

Adams, Marilyn J. 1990. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Blevins, Wiley. 2017. A Fresh Look at Phonics: Common Causes of Failure and 7 Ingredients for Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Ehri, Linea C. 2014. “Orthographic Mapping and Literacy Development Revisited.” In Theories of Reading Development, ed. K.Cain, D.L. Compton, and R.K. Parrila (pp.169-190). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Kilpartrick, David A. 2015. Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Willingham, Daniel T. 2017. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the mind Reads. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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