Children just learning to read text read in a halting fashion. In the beginning, there is little comprehension and concentration is focused on letter sounds and patterns. One of the primary instructional methods to move students toward reading fluency is to promote memorization and automaticity in reading high frequency words.
High frequency words are those words seen most often in text. Many of these words are abstract and have abstract definitions (i.e. the, as, with). Many of them also cannot be decoded using standard phonics (i.e. said, their, of). They are what was called in the 1950’s and 1960’s sight words – words that had to be learned by sight memorization.
Over the years, lists of high frequency words have been developed. The two most commonly found lists are the Dolche and Frye lists. The Dolche lists consists of approximately 220 of the most frequently encountered words. The list is broken down into three sections, meant to be mastered by the end of third grade. The Fry list is more ambitious. The Fry list has 600 words on it and is divided into ten levels. Each level contains approximately 100 words.
Some words are repeated in each leveled list both for Doche and Fry. These are the words that truly enhance reading fluency and without which most text would make little sense. They are words such as away, our, through and but. They are the short words that link other pieces of text together so that the student can comprehend what is being read. Because knowing them is so essential to fluent reading, they appear on all three of the Dolche list and almost all of the ten levels of Fry.
Mastering list after list of high frequency words demonstrates only that a student can memorize words. It is in using these high frequency words in reading fluency and comprehension that their true value is shown.
Fluent reading depends on students being able to read phrases rather than individual words. This seems to fly in the face of learning a list of individual high frequency words. However, once memorized those are the words a student does not have to expend focus or concentration on to decode. This contributes to the ability to read in phrases. Reading in phrases also improves comprehension. Students spend less time decoding words and more time and energy understanding what is being read.
It is important to note that introducing texts containing words from the high frequency lists will not affect fluency nor comprehension unless the student finds the reading material interesting. The student will not be impressed by the number of words they can read nor the rate they can read. The student’s interest lies in what the words mean. High frequency words are seldom the words that carry the context of the story. Yet without them, students will find no meaning in the texts.
Methods of teaching high frequency words vary but instruction based on one of the high frequency lists generally begins in very early grade levels. Repetition is a large part of mastering the lists so groups of the words are often introduced several times a day in several forms.
Reading fluency is a major indicator of school success. Getting a student to read fluently means getting a student to learn words that are not easily decoded, the “sight words”. By learning high frequency words, students are set up for reading success.