In the next two hundred HFWs in Letters and Sounds, I’ve calculated that a further sixty-two are again easily decodable. This makes a total of ninety-four out of the three hundred listed which are commonly occurring words but which are easily decodable and should never be taught as ‘sight words’.
At Sounds-Write, our approach has always been to focus on transparency: that is to say that we teach pupils a transparent system within which if they can read a word, they can spell it. This focus on transparency could, in the initial stages of a child learning to read, restrict the child’s ability to read words even in fairly simple decodable texts. [By initial stages, we mean when the child is working at the level of one-to-one sound/ spelling correspondences or one sound/one two-letter spelling.] This is because there are a number of common but essential single-syllable words whose spellings at this early stage in their learning are not transparent to them.
Words such as ‘the’, ‘is’, ‘was’, ‘of’, and so on cannot easily be avoided when learning to read and write. Thus, when encountered in text, or in dictation, until they are taught formally during the course of the programme, the teacher should take responsibility for these words and introduce them by saying the word for the child as they are reading and saying and modelling the word when they are writing.
In the case of reading, this can be done by saying the whole word, or by saying the sounds and saying the word, or even saying the sounds and asking the child what the word is. If the word has just one unfamiliar spelling the child has not yet come across, such as for example ea in the word ‘head’, the teacher would point to the ea and say, “This is /e/. Say /e/ here.” The child would then say the sounds, /h/ /e/ /d/, and read the word ‘head’. If the child wants to write the word ‘head’, but isn’t sure how to spell the ‘e’ sound in the word, the teacher can write and say, “This (< ea >) is the way we spell /e/ in ‘head’.”
In the case of other HFWs, such as ‘day’, ‘me’, ‘go’ and ‘her’, which appear in the list of the first 100 HFWs, again the teacher simply points to the spelling not yet covered and tells the child the sound it represents. The child says the sounds and reads the word. This approach also sensitises the child(ren) to what is going to be taught formally in the future.
Until they are covered in the programme, whenever these spellings appear in text, as far as possible, we recommend telling the pupils what sound the unknown spelling represents to allow them to decode the word for themselves.
Included in the lists are words containing very infrequent spellings. For example, oh is a spelling alternative for /oe/ and < eo > in ‘people’ is a spelling alternative for the sound ‘ee’, but they are not common spellings and can mostly be taught as they arise in the context of everyday reading and writing.
After covering all the most common spellings of the vowel sounds by the end of Y1, what we are left with are ‘more spellings’ of some of the vowels and consonants, all of which will be taught in the Sounds-Write programme by the end of Y2. Examples would include the spelling of the sound /or/ as ‘door’, or the spelling of the sound /air/ in ‘bear’.
Finally, there are, in the list of high-frequency words, a few words, which admittedly, can be troublesome to teach. These are: ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, ‘many’, ‘any’ and ‘once’. However, an explanation about why they are written in their present form is often helpful. For example, the word ‘Mr’ is an abbreviation of the word ‘mister’ and ‘Mrs’ is an abbreviation of the word ‘mistress’. ‘One’ is derived from the Old English forms ‘en’ and ‘ane’, whose pronunciation, by the fifteenth century, had changed to /w/ /o/ /n/ but whose spelling was retained. Similarly, the word ‘two’ derives from the Old English word ‘twa’. ‘Any’ and ‘many’ simply reflect the changes with which the changes in pronunciation have not caught up. Nevertheless, it is useful to draw attention to the unusual spellings in these words because students are much more likely to remember them in the future.