Vocabulary matters. Words matter. When I use a word, I want those on the receiving end to understand it as I intend it. This doesn’t always happen, of course, but I’m always wary of words that mean one thing to some people and something entirely different to other people, particularly in the field of literacy.
Recently, while I was consulting in a school in Montana, I was reminded of the confusion between the terms sight word, non-phonetic word, and high-frequency word. Add to these the catchy nickname red words, a term whose usage varies depending on the user, and you begin to get a sense of the confusion. For clarity sake, consider these definitions:
(1) High-frequency words are those that appear with great frequency in text. Some are phonetic, but others are not. Many people use the Dolch words to choose common words though this list has not been updated or normed in decades. (As a result, it includes words such as shall.) Fry’s list, which is updated pretty regularly, is a more up-to-date resource. His most common words are included in my Everything text, but you can find his full list in The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists, now in its sixth edition and co-authored by Jaqueline E. Kress, EdD, and Edward B. Fry, PhD. Most every curriculum in current use embeds high-frequency words into its scope and sequence, thereby eliminating the need to choose which words to teach when.
(2) Non-phonetic words are those that cannot be decoded using standard alphabetic principle and syllable pattern work. Sometimes, the term red words describes the non-phonetic words that plague struggling readers because they appear so commonly in text but do not obey learned conventions. Common non-phonetic words include one, two, does, and of.
(3) Most likely, the term sight words causes the most confusion. Some people use the term sight words to describe words that must be learned by sight (i.e., non-phonetic words), but others use the term sight words to describe words that should be learned by sight (i.e., high-frequency words), whether they’re phonetic or not. Since there’s so much confusion about what we mean by the term sight words and also a decent amount of information that contradicts current instructional practice regarding them anyway, I try to avoid this term altogether.
Now that we’ve fine-tuned our terminology, I want to draw your attention to Linda Farrell, Tina Osenga, and Michael Hunter’s excellent article, “A New Model for Teaching High Frequency Words”, available on their website, www.readsters.com.