Heart Words: The New Science-Backed Way To Teach High Frequency Words
This post may contain affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. Please read the disclosure policy for more details.
If you’re looking for effective high frequency word instruction, then the Heart Word Method is exactly what you want. This method will transform your sight word instruction and your students will thank you for it.
Read on to find out what heart words are, how to teach them, and why you should be teaching high frequency words this way.
Sight Words & High Frequency Words
What are sight words?
Sight words are those that can be recognized on sight without having to sound out the letters. They are any words that you recognize immediately, aka ‘on sight’.
But many refer to sight words as words that need to be memorized because they don’t follow phonics rules. This is an incorrect use of the word.
What are high frequency words?
The term ‘high frequency words’ refers to the most frequently used words in written English. They make up 50-80% of the text children are exposed to on a daily basis. Some high frequency words are decodable, and some are not.
There are two types of high frequency words: regularly spelled and irregularly spelled.
Regularly spelled words are decodable like ‘but’, ‘and’, or ‘see’. These words follow phonics rules.
Irregularly spelled high frequency words don’t follow phonics patterns. These include words like ‘the’ and ‘said’. These words cannot be decoded and need to be explicitly taught.
How do we learn sight words?
Rote memorization is the method that is traditionally used to teach sight words. This involves repeating a word over and over until it can be recognized on sight by rote memory.
But this method is actually not based on what the science of reading tells us about how we learn words.
And as noted, some sight words don’t need to be memorized because they are decodable! For example, the word ‘and‘ is completely decodable because students can sound it out. Think about how many ‘sight words’ you might be teaching that don’t need to be taught as sight words because they are phonetically regular!
Orthographic mapping is the process where children learn to recognize each letter of the alphabet and how each letter represents one sound. For instance, “s” represents the /s/ sound. Orthographic mapping is how words become sight words.
In David Kilpatrick’s book Equipped for Reading Success, he says that students must develop three skills to become “good mappers”:
- automatic letter-sound associations
- highly proficient phoneme awareness
- word study
His belief is that the word study portion is what actually leads to the permanent memory of the word. But for this to happen, students need to have letter-sound proficiency and phonemic proficiency.
This is precisely why teaching sight words through memory doesn’t work. Most students will naturally acquire the skills needed to permanently map high frequency words, but students with phonological awareness difficulties will not make these connections and will struggle.
Irregularly spelled high frequency words need to be taught explicitly! Even though many high frequency words don’t fully follow phonics patterns, we can still apply the same sound-symbol relationship that phonics programs develop by using the Heart Word Method.
What is the Heart Word Method?
The Heart Word Method involves teaching students to recognize sight words using irregular letter patterns, rather than copying the words out repeatedly.
What are heart words?
Heart words are irregularly spelled high frequency words. Because they do not follow the normal rules of spelling, parts of these words need to be explicitly taught and learned by heart. 37% of the Dolch 220 List (only 82 words) are Heart Words.
This method also refers to regularly spelled high frequency words as Flash Words, because we want students to know these in a flash. 63% of the Dolch 220 List are considered Flash Words, meaning they are decodable (this means you don’t need to teach these as sight words!).
Heart words are taught as part of the phonics curriculum. You can teach them wherever they fit in.
How to Teach Heart Words
The main premise of using the Heart Word Method is to teach students irregular high frequency words by decoding what can be sounded out, and using a heart to represent the irregular spelling pattern in the word. Here is how you introduce a heart word:
1. Introduce the word and have students repeat it. It may be helpful to use it in a sentence for context.
2. Tap out the sounds you hear in the word. You can have students use their fingers to tap and count the sounds. Ask them how many sounds they hear in the word.
3. Ask students what the word is. Identify the parts that are phonetically regular. Ask students to tell you what sounds they hear in those positions (in the word ‘said’ it’s the first and last sounds, so prompt them with “What’s the first/last sound you hear?”. Place a colored box under the corresponding letters.
4. Ask students what the word is. Identify the parts that are phonetically irregular. Ask students what sound it makes. Place a heart under this part of the word.
5. Explicitly teach this irregular sound that the heart letters make. Tell students this is the part they need to know ‘by heart’.
6. Write the word together. Ask students to read the word and spell it aloud chorally.
7. Ask students to take a mental picture of the word, erase/cover it, and ask them to air write it from memory. They must say the letter as they write it.
8. Ask students about specific letters in the word: What is the first/last letter? What is before/after (name a letter)? What are the heart letters?
9. Ask students to write the word on a surface, such as on paper or a whiteboard. They should underline the heart letters and draw a heart above them.
10. Create practice phonics cards. Have students write the word on the card. Then have them draw a dot under each sound in the word. After have them underline the heart letters and draw a heart over them.
Heart Word Activities (aka Sight Word Practice)
Forget about endless repetitive writing. Make your high frequency word practice meaningful! Have students build on the Heart Word Method by integrating it into the activities and keeping things multisensory.
After introducing a heart word, students can:
- Practice writing the heart word
Have students write the word a few times. Ask them to draw a heart around the tricky part of the word. They could also highlight or trace the tricky part with a highlighter.
- Tap the sounds using Elkonin boxes
Provide students with an Elkonin boxes template (I have one in my freebies library), a few manipulatives they can use to represent a sound, and heart manipulative (can be printed out or they can use a dry erase marker to draw it). Students can use the manipulatives to place them into the boxes to represent the word and its sounds. Make sure they’re placing the heart in the correct place.
- Elkonin box spelling
You can have students spell the heart word by writing the letters into Elkonin boxes and drawing a heart over the tricky part. I like to use my printed Elkonin boxes template placed in a sheet protector so students can use dry-erase markers.
- Sight word worksheet
Got a bunch of traditional sight word worksheets? You can easily modify them to fit the Heart Word method. Have students draw a heart around the heart letters in the word everywhere on the page and after they write it. They should also say the letters as they write and spell aloud.
- Heart Word Practice Center
This is an activity I created that could be done whole group or in a center. Print off and laminate a few of these for a center, or give students a copy and place it in a sheet protector so they can use it with a dry erase marker. Using their heart word flashcards, the students can complete this task on their own or with a partner. Download the template in my SOR guide by signing up for my email list below.
I also created a resource with all the Dolch words using the Heart Word Method. Click here to learn more about these no prep sight word practice worksheets!
I also found these cute little heart clothespins on Amazon that students can use to clip over the tricky part of heart words. I printed out the heart words on cardstock.
Or you can grab these ready heart word cards. They are irregular high-frequency words already mapped out and ready to use. It comes with a slides version and printable cards version.
I also made these Heart Words Foldable Books with 163 irregular high frequency words. These make a great independent activity that students can take home to practice reading.
- Other ‘sight word’ activities
If you have a bunch of those cute and fun ‘sight word’ activities, you can still use them. I would really focus on introducing high frequency words using the Heart Word Method, and have them practice using at least one of the other methods I shared here. But in addition to that, you can keep your other activities. I would just not use them in isolation, since they aren’t teaching the word to students and it’s simply visual practice.
Digital Resources for Heart Words
There are actually quite a few FREE online resources to help you teach heart words.
Really Great Reading has a resource called Heart Word Magic, a library of digital videos that teach individual sight words. They are about 3 minutes long and can be used as the heart word introduction. You can access Heart Word Magic here.
The University of Florida has free Google and PowerPoint slides, as well as digital and printable flashcards that you use for practice. You can access them here.
Hopefully, this post has helped you see how you can more effectively teach high frequency words and given you an easy starting point. I do plan to create more resources for this in the future so keep an eye out for that.
Want to remember this? Save Heart Words: The New Science-Backed Way To Teach High Frequency Words to your favorite Pinterest board!
If you’re looking for more tips on teaching reading to struggling learners, check out these other posts:
- Phonemic Awareness Strategies & Activities For Struggling Learners
- The 6 Syllable Types
- Why You Should Switch To A Sound Wall
- Reading Strategies for Struggling Readers – Elkonin Boxes
- Teaching Reading Comprehension Strategies – My Secret Tip To Improve Reading Comprehension
- Multisensory Strategies for B & D Reversals – Dyslexia Intervention
- Multisensory Spelling Strategy for Struggling Learners – Dyslexia Spelling Strategy
Do you have the flashcards? I would love a set of those.
I do not but will be adding them to my Heart Words products. UFLI does have free flashcards which I linked to in this post.
Do you have a list of the 82 heart words of the Dolch word list?
I do not. But you can find them all on the UFLI site I linked in this post.
I cannot assess the information with the link from University of Florida. Would love to have these flashcards. Thank you
Hi Jeanne. I just updated the link: https://ufli.education.ufl.edu/resources/teaching-resources/instructional-activities/irregular-and-high-frequency-words/?fbclid=IwAR1NESDR1i-OG9ohS-Y8vXMq78zMZ-wemm4Or-sutSP9C1-IgvGsb3ex5wo