Seeing Your Way Through Sight Words - Exceed in Learning

Seeing Your Way Through Sight Words

Sight Words

Your child knows the ABCs.  He is starting to understand that each letter makes a special sound.  He may even start to understand that when you put a few sounds together, it makes a word.  What a great feeling!  As a parent, I’ve felt this success.  You may think to yourself, “Ok, this is going pretty well!  I’ve taught my child how to read words!”  However, those tricky words start popping up. You may know what I’m referring to.  The words that you CAN’T sound out.  For my child, she just couldn’t understand that all words can’t be sounded out.  Those high-frequency words (aka sight words) started to be more and more prevalent as my daughter worked her way into reading sentences.  I knew that it was time that we started working on sight word recognition alongside phonetic blending.  

I remember asking myself, “How do I get her to learn ALL of these sight words?  There are so many!”  Surely the “memorize and drill” activities that I remember as a child are a thing of the past… Right?  Let’s take a look at a different way to teach high-frequency words.

What are High-Frequency Words?

The education world is filled with acronyms and lingo that most people don’t recognize or understand.  This sometimes makes it a guessing game when they see these abbreviations come up during the school year.  GT, ELL, PAC, HFW, NWEA… Wow!  How am I supposed to know all of these!  HFW, also known as high-frequency words, are words that appear frequently in a story or a text.  These words are very prevalent in beginner-level books for young children.  Some HFWs can be spelled with regular patterns, such as “can” or “like”.  Other HFWs have tricky sound combinations.  These may include words such as “four” or “does”.

How Do Children Learn All of the HFWs?

Memorization definitely plays a role in learning high-frequency words.  However, there’s a bit more to it than just rote memorization.


As with learning any new word, a student has to know what each word means.  This may be easy for some words, such as “little”, “you”, numbers, etc.  Maybe you have seen some programs where the student makes a drawing out of the word itself to help create meaning.  Some sight words are a bit abstract to associate meaning with.  For example, “the”, “has”, “was” may be a bit difficult for a young learner to understand since there isn’t a concrete picture they can create in their minds.

Students need to hear the word used repeatedly in sentences and also create their own sentences with the sight word.


Not only is memorizing an important part of HFW recognition, spelling is as well.  There are many great activities to help your child with HFW spelling, which helps with recognition as well.  Check out the ideas at the end of this blog post for some ideas!

Where Do I Begin?

I came across an interesting approach to HFW instruction.  This is where I first heard the terms “Flash Words” and “Heart Words”.  

Flash words are words that can be taught with spelling patterns that students know.  Words such as “can”, “am”, and “has” are decodable words, but also categorized as sight words.  Other words such as “when”, “much”, and “pick” are also considered flash words.  Students will be able to decode and spell these when the digraphs “wh”, “ch”, “ck”, etc. are taught.  

Heart words are words that include irregular spelling patterns.  These are words that are not able to be sounded out.  There are a few patterns that can be grouped together, such as “his”, “is”, and “has”.  All of these words have an “s” at the end that make the /z/ sound.  I also liked the idea of drawing little hearts above the irregular patterns as a signal to the student.  

Integrating HFW with Phonics Instruction

Typically, students are just given a list of high-frequency words to memorize without any correlation to their phonics instruction.  This can be difficult for some kids because they may see sounds that they have not been exposed to yet.  For example, some students may struggle with the HFWs “play”, “may”, “say” if they haven’t learned about vowel teams.  

It may be helpful to teach corresponding Flash and Heart Words with the phonics patterns that are being taught.  For example, if students are learning the short “a” sound, it would make sense to teach the flash words: as, at, am, etc.  This may mean that the order in which you teach sight words will change from what you are used to.

I’m excited to try this this method out to see how it compares to typical HFW instruction!   Now let’s take a look at some fun multi-sensory activities to help your younger learner.

  1.  Play-Dough Practice: Help your child roll play-dough into long rope-like shapes.  Your child can then work on the shaping each letter to spell the high-frequency word.
  2.  Salt-Pan Practice: Cover a baking sheet or tray with salt.  Have your child trace each HFW on the pan.  Shake the pan to erase the word and start over again!
  3.  Wikki-Stix:  These are great for on the go practice!  These are bendable pieces of wax that your child can use over and over again to make letters.
  4.  Shaving Cream:  This one is my favorite, even though it is a bit messy!  Use shaving cream to cover a placemat.  You will need to spread it out a bit to create a “blank slate”.  Kids have a lot of fun drawing their sight words into the shaving cream!

I’m excited to hear from you how the Flash Words and Heart Words method works for you!  Also, please share any fun sight word activities that you like to use with your child or students!

Reference: Farrell, L., Osenga, T. and Hunter, M., 2013. A New Model For Teaching High Frequency Words. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 26 May 2021].