High Frequency and Tricky Words

High Frequency Words (HFWs) are the words that appear most often in printed materials.

Schools used to expect children to learn 45 HFWs by the end of their first year of school. These have now been replaced by a list of 100 most common words that are taught during Reception Year and Year 1:

1 the 21 that 41 not 61 look 81 put
2 and 22 with 42 then 62 don’t 82 could
3 a 23 all 43 were 63 come 83 house
4 to 24 we 44 go 64 will 84 old
5 said 25 can 45 little 65 into 85 too
6 in 26 are 46 as 66 back 86 by
7 he 27 up 47 no 67 from 87 day
8 I 28 had 48 mum 68 children 88 made
9 of 29 my 49 one 69 him 89 time
10 it 30 her 50 them 70 Mr 90 I’m
11 was 31 what 51 do 71 get 91 if
12 you 32 there 52 me 72 just 92 help
13 they 33 out 53 down 73 now 93 Mrs
14 on 34 this 54 dad 74 came 94 called
15 she 35 have 55 big 75 oh 95 here
16 is 36 went 56 when 76 about 96 off
17 for 37 be 57 It’s 77 got 97 asked
18 at 38 like 58 see 78 their 98 saw
19 his 39 some 59 looked 79 people 99 make
20 but 40 so 60 very 80 your 100 an

The problem is that many of these common words have complex spellings, so that children will not be able to read them in the early stages of reading by using their phonic decoding skills learnt, so they have to learn them by heart.

Tricky words
A ‘tricky’ word either contains letters (or letter combinations) that the child has not yet been taught (and will become fully decodable for them later on) or contains an irregular part that does not follow phonic rules (such as ‘here’, does’, ‘one’). Children do have to learn these words, but even with these words, an understanding of letter sounds helps, as it is only part of the word that is irregular.

A lot of words that are said to be ‘irregular’, or ‘not decodable’ are in fact perfectly decodable – they just have to be introduced at an appropriate stage. The majority of HFWs do follow decoding rules and can be sounded out once children have knowledge of how the sounds are represented in alternative ways.

Reading schemes such as the Oxford Reading Tree (Biff, Chip and Kipper stories) are written deliberately to include and ‘learn’ the HFWs. Good decodable reading schemes keep the HFWs to an absolute minimum in the early stages, giving children a chance to practise their blending skills using the sounds they have been taught.

If your child is following a good synthetic phonics programme, you will be very pleased to hear that they should not be bringing home lists of random, complex words that need to be learned by memory – a nightmare for both children and their parents! This is because phonic skills are established with regular words before trickier words are introduced slowly and systematically. These skills allow them to READ any word they come across (and understand it if it is in their spoken vocabulary).

Of course English is not a simple phonetic
language, it’s very complex – that’s the problem –
but it does have a code. It has to be taught step by
step, gradually adding the irregularities. English has
a million words and you can’t teach them all one by
one (Ruth Miskin).

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