How to teach any HFWs (part II)

This post is a continuation of and companion to the last.

As I’ve written on numerous occasions, high frequency words are just that: high frequency: that is, they occur frequently in children’s texts. However, occurring frequently in texts does not mean they have to be taught ‘by sight’. Once a child has learned to segment and blend sounds in words containing any of the sound-spelling correspondences below, they do not have to try and learn ‘by sight’ at least thirty-two of the words listed below in the first 100 high frequency words in Letters and Sounds. These thirty-two* words are easily decodable in the early stages of the learning to read and spell.

The table that follows contains the sounds-spelling correspondences which constitute the ‘basic code’ I talked about in Part I of this pair of posts.

[ a ]
[ t ]
[ b ]
[ u ]
[ c ]
[ v ]
[ d ]
[ w ]
[ e ]
[ x ]
[ f ]
[ y ]
[ g ]
[ z ]
[ h ]
[ ff ]
[ i ]
[ ll ]
[ j ]

[ ss ]
[ k ]
[ zz ]
[ l ]
[ sh ]
[ m ]
[ ch ]
[ n ]
/th/ (unvoiced)
[ th ]
[ o ]
/th/ (voiced)
[ th ]
[ p ]
[ ck ]
[ q ]
[ wh ]
[ r ]
[ sh ]
[ s ]
/k/ /w/
[ q ] and [ u ]

–> / / = sounds    [ ] = spellings

The thirty-two easily decodable words:

         2 and VCC           6 in VC                10 itVC               14 on VC
18 atVC               20 but CVC          21 that CVC        22 with CVC
25 canCVC          27 up VC             28 had CVC         34 this CVC
36 wentCVCC     41 not CVC          42 then CVC        8  mum CVC
50 themCVC       54 dad CVC         55 big CVC          56 when CVC
57 it’sVCC          64 will CVC          66 back CVC       67 from CCVC
69 himCVC         71 get CVC          72 just CVCC       77 got CVC


91 ifVC                92 help CVCC      96 off VC             100 an VC


*The number indicates how the words are organised sequentially in the government list. As can be seen, no fewer than 78% of these thirty-two words are vowel-consonant or consonant-vowel-consonant words, and they are all incredibly easy to teach.
From the beginning of teaching reading and spelling, our focus should be 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. Writing words and saying each sound as the child writes the spelling is very powerful and is hugely important in helping the child remember the connection between sounds and spellings. If you think about it, it’s easy to see that if every time you read a word or build a word (see below) you say the sounds as you write it, the process is going to be enormously helpful in assisting the child to store the association between sound and spelling in long-term memory. And, cognitive psychologists assure us, If it doesn’t go into long-term memory, it hasn’t been learnt.

Nonetheless, this focus on transparency from the beginning can initially restrict pupils’ ability to access text because of some, essential single-syllable words, such as ‘the’, whose spelling, at this early stage in their learning, is not transparent to them. Words such as ‘is’, ‘of’ and ‘the’, for example, cannot easily be avoided when learning to read and write. So, as suggested in the previous post, when encountered in text, or in dictation, the teacher should take responsibility for these words and introduce them in the manner outlined.
Does this mean that the remaining sixty-eight words in the list of 100 should be taught ‘by sight’? The short answer is no. If pupils are taught a phonics programme which covers all the common spellings of the sounds in the English language, they should have met and practised every single sound-spelling correspondence in every single one of the the 300 words listed in Letters and Sounds in Key Stage 1.

The problem is that most teachers are not trained well enough to know how to teach all the common sound-spelling correspondences needed for pupils to be able to read ANY word in English. So what do they do? They resort to employing short-cuts, which, for many pupils, are hopelessly ineffective.

Let’s look at two of the most common, short-cut approaches to teaching so-called ‘sight words’. The first is the use of flash cards. If a child cannot decode a word on a flash card, they are being asked to remember the word as a whole, something that is very difficult to do given that thousands of words contain the same number of letters and often begin and end with the same letters. The words ‘house’ and ‘horse’ spring to mind here. Given also that these words are never presented singly but are always introduced in bunches. Pairing any particular word to its written representation and remembering it as a whole unit is exceedingly hard to do and quickly overloads working memory. It’s called paired-associate learning and even adults find paired-associate learning very difficult.

The other thing about using flash cards is that the technique itself seems utterly illogical: if a child can read a word, they’ll read it and you don’t need a flash card to tell you that; on the other hand, if the child can’t read a word, using a flash card doesn’t tell you which part of the word is problematical. It’s the problematical bit that needs to be the focus of attention and of our teaching.

The equivalent of this practice is sending words home in a tin/plastic box to be learnt by sight. If a pupil works exceptionally hard and practises them every day, they may do quite well on a subsequent quiz or test. Try them with the same words in a week or two weeks and see how well they do then; or, check the pupil’s work and see if they are able to spell the target words correctly.
The second approach many teachers use is ‘Look, Cover, Write, Check’. Here, it can be argued that the writing element is a help in getting the word into long-term memory, though any teacher will tell you that for many children LCWC isn’t very effective either. This is because the focus of attention is not on the previously unencountered and therefore difficult spelling in the word for the child but on the whole word.
So what does work more effectively? If you absolutely have to teach words containing sound-spelling correspondences the pupil(s) haven’t yet been taught, make sure there is no more than one ‘difficult’ bit in each word. And, don’t try and teach more than one or two words at a time or you’ll quickly overload working memory. My advice would be to teach no more than one or two of these words a week, alongside the sound-spelling correspondences the children are learning. These are the words Sounds-Write introduces: ‘is’, ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘I’, ‘for, ‘of’, ‘are’, ‘was’, ‘all’, ‘come’ and ‘some’, and ‘to’ over a period of two terms. After [ th ] has been taught, ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘these’ are also introduced.
But, let’s now take the frequently mentioned example of ‘said’. The sounds in ‘said’ are /s/ /e/ /d/. The spelling of the sounds /s/ and /d/ shouldn’t constitute a problem. The problem will almost always be the less frequently encountered [ ai ] spelling of /e/ in the frequently encountered word ‘said’. I find that the best way to present this is through word building.
Here’s what to do (and, by the way, you can use this technique to teach any single syllable or polysyllabic word):
Take three Post-Its or (laminated) squares of paper and write the spellings [ s ] [ ai ] and [ d ] on the squares. Now jumble them up out of order and put them on a whiteboard or on an A3 sheet of paper as shown below.


Next, draw three lines underneath, making sure the lines are about the same length as the squares of paper. Assuming that you are teaching a class, tell the pupils you are going to say the word ‘said’ very slowly. Using your finger, draw it slowly under the lines as you stretch out the word ‘said’. Don’t separate the sounds as you do this. What the class should hear is a continuous ‘ssssseeeeed’.

Ask the class, “What’s the first sound you hear when I say the word ‘said?” If you’ve stretched out the sound, the pupils will tell you it is /s/. Confirm this and tell them to say /s/, making sure they say it precisely and that you don’t get any ‘suh’ or ‘ess’ responses. Now, ask someone to come to the board and show everyone how we spell the /s/. The pupil pulls the spelling [ s ] down onto the line and says /s/ and everyone repeats the sound as this is done.

Repeat the process for the next sound in ‘said’, again sweeping your finger from the beginning of the word to the end. You can if you wish linger over the /e/ sound, stretching it out to help pupils who might miss it if you go too quickly. Ask the pupils what sound they hear when your finger is under the middle line. Again, someone should be able to say /e/. Finally, you do the same thing with the final sound. This time you won’t be able to stretch out the /d/ sound so you might have to say it a bit louder.
Now you’ve built the word, ask the pupils to say the sounds (separately) and read the word /s/ /e/ /d/, ‘said’. To make it explicit, you can ask someone to come to the board and point to “the way we spell /e/ in this word”. Now, if you’re teaching a whole class, give further practice by choosing several pupils, one after the other, to say the sounds and read the word.
When this has been completed, ask all the pupils to take a whiteboard or an exercise book or piece of paper and to draw three lines. You will have to model this for the pupils to make sure you get exactly what you want. When this has been done, ask the pupil(s) to write the word, saying the sounds as they do. When they have written the word, the once again read it back sound by sound. This is to check that what they have written is what they wanted.

‘Look, cover, write, check’ can be improved by the addition of two extra ingredients so that it now looks like: Look, say the sounds and read the word, helping (if necessary) with and talking about any previously unencountered, problematical spelling. Now, cover the word and ask the pupil(s) to write the word, saying the sounds before reading it back and then checking with the original.


The approach advocated above is completely antithetical to a piecemeal, short-cut way – it doesn’t deserve to be called a method – of teaching the complexities of the the English sound-spelling system. What I’m recommending is explicit and systematic teaching that enables the construction of a schema for sounds and spellings in English. Such a schema has the functions of enabling pupils to organise and store cumulatively large amounts of information in long-term memory and of reducing working memory load. Using flash cards and other such devices does nothing to promote the skills, understanding and knowledge needed for all pupils to learn to read and write proficiently.