Finding Purpose: The Key to Making High Frequency Words Stick

Kaylee learned two words very quickly in the first weeks of kindergarten — two words which she wrote again and again: love and Kaylee.

Kaylee, a talented artist, spent much of her choice time making cards and paintings for friends and family, each one signed:

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Kaylee learned these words before learning all of the names of the letters they are comprised of. She learned these words because they were important to her. She needed them. She needed to know these words to spread her message.

The number of high frequency words children are expected to know by the end of each year can feel daunting. It may be tempting to schedule a certain number of new words taught each week, or even to make a yearly plan for which words will be taught each week.

However, when predetermined words are taught in isolation, without meaningful connections to learning, and without ample opportunities to practice, kids may not learn the words at all.

Instead, we can pay close attention to the words kids are writing most, the words kids need to know to write each genre, the words kids write again and again when writing about topics and people they hold dear to their heart. By doing so, we can shift the motive of teaching and learning high frequency words from “have to” to “want to,” making them immediately and authentically useful. 

Independent Practice

We can support and differentiate high frequency word accumulation during independent writing time when:

A writer asks how to spell a high frequency word.

In most cases, when kids ask “How do you spell…?” we encourage their independence and inventive spelling. However, kids are often stumped with how to spell high frequency words, as they are typically not spelled phonetically.

When this happens,

  1. We can say, “That is a tricky word to spell, and it’s actually a word that writers use again and again, so can I show you how it looks?”
  2. Keeping sticky notes at hand, we can quickly write the word for the child, then have them go through the typical steps of learning high frequency words.
  3. We can leave the sticky note with the child to stick on their folder (or they can record it on a personal word wall).
  4. Finally, we can invite the writer to teach the word to the class at share or with other writers at their table.

A writer plans to write a high frequency word again and again.

When listening to writers oral rehearse, we may hear them (or nudge them to use) a pattern of high frequency words. We can leave a writer with these words written on sticky notes (one word on each sticky note, and one blank sticky note for the changing word).

Any word can become a word that kids read and write with automaticity. When a writer has a particular name or word they use frequently in their books, they can learn it (just as they would a high frequency word) and add it to an individualized word wall.

A writer repeatedly spells a high frequency word incorrectly.

If we notice writers spelling a word incorrectly again and again, it is important to intervene, as words spelled incorrectly can be memorized incorrectly. 

  • Can ______ read these high frequency words? If so, we can teach them how to use a word wall as a tool to check their spelling.
  • If ______ cannot yet read the high frequency words they are using, it would be overwhelming to teach them too many words at once. We can focus on the ones used most frequently first, and add those to a personalized high frequency word list.

Connect High Frequency Words to Genre Studies

My friend and TCRWP staff developer, Shanna Schwartz, shared that we can connect high frequency words to genre studies by noticing (with the active involvement of kids) words that are commonly used and teaching those words alongside each genre.

Click here for a printable version.

To do so, we can say, during any component of writing workshop or a shared writing experience:

“____ seems to be a word authors use again and again in ____ books. It must be really important to know how to write ____ in a snap. Let’s practice it together and watch for it in the books we read and write.”

Shanna also shared the idea to write high frequency words (or other commonly used words) on different colored sticky notes, grouped by where the word commonly appears in the structure of a sentence. The words are written beneath each sticky note on the chart paper so that kids can take the sticky notes they need and return them with ease.

By organizing words this way, it not only provides a visual support for structuring a sentence, but also builds flexibility. During large or small group instruction, we can use these sticky notes to model making a sentence (i.e. Put the peanut butter on top of the jelly.). Then, we can ask kids, “How else could we say that?” (i.e. Get a jar of peanut butter. Put the peanut butter above the jelly.) and model those sentences with the sticky notes. 

This high frequency word chart was used to support sentence structure during a How-To genre study.

This high frequency word chart grew throughout a narrative genre study.

During a narrative unit, this chart, made by Katie Lee, highlighted high frequency words and transition words that writers wanted to use.

Kristi Mraz included visuals to support writers with forming sentences using high frequency words.

Shanna Schwartz used boxes at the bottom of her high frequency word charts to help writers with forming different kinds of sentences. These charts were used to support small-group interactive writing.

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These writers created a sentence from a high frequency word structure chartan informational genre study. Each student in the small group recorded the words for a different page to make a book.

As we rally writers in excitement and purpose of each new genre study, we can share the same excitement and purpose of new high frequency words. As an added bonus, when kids get lots of practice using these words in their writing, we are sure to see lots of transfer to reading!

For More on High Frequency Words