High frequency words

How confused can Key Stage 1 teachers be about high frequency words?

Well, how confused can some Key Stage 1 teachers be about HFWs? Answer? Very confused!
Here is a letter to parents sent home recently from a primary school somewhere in the south east of England.

Dear Parents/CarersThis week in phonics the children have been learning the following sounds:a, i, m, s, t, n, o p
They have been using the sounds to spell words. For example:at, it, an, as, sat, sit, mat, man, not, potThere are 100 common words (key words) that occur frequently in much of the written material young children read and which they need when they write.  In order to read simple captions and sentences, it is also necessary to learn to read the key words before reaching that stage in the phonics programme. The high frequency words are taught by sight from memory and we explain that we can not sound out these words. [My emphasis] Below is a list of the first 100 high frequency words.0 high-frequency words in order

1. the               21. that            41. not             61. look             81. put
2. and              22. with           42. then           62. don’t            82. could
3. a                  23. all              43. were          63. come            83. house
4. to                 24. we             44. go              64. will              84. old
5. said             25. can             45. little           65. into             85. too
6. in                 26. are             46. as              66. back             86. by
7. he                27. up              47. no              67. from             87. day
8. I                   28. had            48. mum          68. children       88. made
9. of                 29. my             49. one            69. him              89. time
10. it                30. her             50. them          70. Mr               90. I’m
11. was            31. what          51. do              71. get               91. if
12. you            32. there          52. me             72. just              92. help
13. they           33. out             53. down         73. now             93. Mrs
14. on              34. this            54. dad            74. came            94. called
15. she            35. have           55. big             75. oh                95. here
16. is               36. went          56. when         76. about            96. off
17. for             37. be              57. it’s             77. got               97. asked
18. at               38. like            58. see            78. their              98. saw
19. his             39. some         59. looked       79. people          99. make
20. but             40. so              60. very           80. your           100. an

Of course, what is being asserted here is, to use an old fashioned expression, poppycock! To begin with, all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have at some point in time been assigned spellings. So, what the teachers who have written this rubbish haven’t seemed to have understood is that the structure of the writing system is conceptually very straightforward: there are sounds and there are spellings to represent those sounds. So, contrary to the piffle being peddled by the teachers concerned, ALL words can be sounded out.

Now, let’s examine the list they provide, which, incidentally comes from Letters and Sounds, a government document which has now been archived. If you look at it carefully, you will see that no less than thirty-two of the words in the list are very easily decodable. Given that pupils are being taught how to blend and segment properly and that they are learning to link sounds to spellings, what could possibly be difficult about reading or spelling words such as ‘in’, ‘it’, ‘not’, ‘mum’ and so on? In fact, you can see how confused the writers of the letter to parents are by the fact that they say in their preamble that they using ‘sounds to spell words’ and yet haven’t seemed to have noticed that one of the words listed – ‘it’ – is then presented in their list of undecodable words!! if it were not more serious, it would be laughable.

It is undoubtedly the case that the alphabet code gets more complex to teach because there are many ways of spellings individual sounds and that many spellings represent different sounds. This is complex because it means that there is a lot to learn. However, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be taught if it’s taught from simple to progressively more complex.
What the school is doing goes against not only what the research on the teaching of reading and spelling has found but also what Ofsted and the government are saying teachers should be doing.
It is shame that, in spite of the training, research and evidence available, teachers insist on reverting to the practices of a bygone age.

If you want to know what to do about high frequency words which contain sound-spelling correspondences that have not yet been taught formally in a phonics programme, you can find out here in one of my previous postings.

5 thoughts on “How confused can Key Stage 1 teachers be about high frequency words?

  1. John, you seem to be implying that the Letters & Sounds guidance instructs/encourages teachers to teach the HFWs on the list as 'wholes'. This seems unfair. Whatever its perceived shortcomings the guidance states quite explicitly that the words are to be taught as decodable but with a grapheme which is unusual or unfamiliar to the pupils at that stage of their learning. it also states that most of the HFWs are decodeable if the phoneme/grapheme correspondences are known. (Letters & Sounds p64. Also, Notes of Guidance p15)

    Perhaps you did not mean to imply an association between teaching of HFWs as 'wholes' and Letters & Sounds. In which case I am over-reading your text…

  2. Hi Maggie,
    Thanks for your comment!
    I didn't mean to imply that at all and I'm sorry if I gave that impression. However, notwithstanding what you correctly point to in the guidance, I do think that L & S doesn't give a satisfactory enough explanation of what teachers should be doing to teach words that contain sound-spelling correspondences that haven't been covered yet in a particular phonics programme. If it did, there wouldn't be so many teachers – and this issue comes up again and again, as you know – who equate high frequency with 'undecodable' with 'sight'.
    Best regards, John

  3. Of course the orthography of English represents a compromise between assigning letters to sounds and assigning letters to morphemes, which is where some of the complexities lie.
    I detect an overworked teacher in the letter sent home. Either that, or a teacher who has not thought through some erroneous guidance s/he has been given. As you say, it is obvious to all readers that some of the HFWs given in the list are decodable using the basic, most common correspondences, and a person educated to degree level would be aware of that – if they but think about it. But teachers are led to believe that they don't know about phonics and have to bow to the expertise of others. This is a de-skilling process. As regards phonics, the difficulties for reading arise when the child does not know the word s/he is trying to decode, when the slow pace of decoding interferes with learning, or when there are multiple possible pronunciations/spellings beyond the basic code.

  4. Actually, Ruth, this wasn't an individual teacher: it was a team and the person who wrote it is head of the team as well as being the literacy coordinator.
    I know you don't like this but hardly a single teacher attending our courses for serving professionals (or teachers in training) has a clue about the intellectual rationale for teaching phonics: i.e. that the spellings in the language represent the sounds. As we have trained nearly thirteen thousand, I can say this with some confidence.
    It is certainly a problem if the child doesn't know the word when they are trying to decode it but then this is a problem of knowledge. I don't know the meaning of lots of words IO read every week in the New Scientist or in Scientific American. However, because I can decode them, I am able to understand them within the context of the text (of course as long as the text isn't too abstruse for me).
    And, I also agree with the point you make about slow pace. Good quality phonics programmes need to be teaching the skills of blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation to automaticity. But then we've been through this before, haven't we? So, I won't quote Stanovich at you!
    Thanks for your comment.

  5. The confusion about "High Frequency Words" isn't confined to teachers. For one thing it's tangled up with the "tricky words" and "irregular words" as well as "sight words"–all euphemisms for words a child has not been taught how to read via the grapheme/correspondences of the English Alphabetic Code.

    These terms muddle the structure of the English Alphabetic Code, which itself is not widely understood within either the profession or the public; understanding that is further muddled rather than clarified by the term, "Phonics."

    The orthodox SP position on HFW, as I understand it, is as stated by Maggie D: "the words are to be taught as decodable but with a grapheme which is unusual or unfamiliar to the pupils at that stage of their learning." However, following that counsel entails increased complexity for instructors and an increased memory load for children.

    Stating that "most of the HFWs are decodable" further contributes to the confusion. As you say, "All English words are decodable"–although the frequency-of-occurrence of Correspondences differs, with a few place and proper names occurring only once.

    Does the confusion matter? While it does lead to unintended mal-instruction, the upshot for kids is not all that consequential at this point in time, if we look at the (superficially analyzed) Yr 1 Screening Check.

    The results indicate that reading instruction doesn't need to be spot on to reliably teach kids to read. The instruction just can't be wantonly butchered by REALLY mal-instructional practices touted as "mixed methods" or "balanced literacy." Even then roughly two-thirds of the kids, roughly speaking, "learn to read"–some not proficiently, but passably/acceptably, in spite of rather than because of the instruction they receive.

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