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What are high frequency words?

Colourful magnetic letters
As your child learns to read and spell they’re likely to bring home lists of words. Moira Holden looks at ways in which you can reinforce the learning of high frequency words at home.

What are the words my child brings home from school?

In Reception, your child will be given around 45 high frequency words to learn over the year – the aim is for them to be able to recognise these words and to be able to read them. Children learn these words as part of their phonics lessons and may also bring high frequency words home to read.

Why are they called high frequency?

High frequency words are common words, words that appear very often in written texts. They are a mixture of decodable words (words that can be sounded out) and tricky / exception words (words in which the English spelling code works in an unusual or uncommon way, which means the words have to be learned and recognised by sight).

It is really important that children learn how to read these words as they will make up a large proportion of the words they will be reading in everyday texts. They also need to learn to spell these words as they will find they will need to use them a great deal in their writing. (Research has shown that just 16 words, such as ‘and’, ‘he’, ‘I’ and ‘in’, but also the more phonetically-difficult ‘the’, ‘to’, ‘you’, ‘said’, ‘are’, ‘she’ and ‘was’, make up a quarter of the words in a piece of writing, whether it’s for adults or children.)

The top 100 high frequency words (in order of frequency of use) are: the, and, a, to, said, in, he, I, of, it, was, you, they, on, she, is, for, at, his, but, that, with, all, we, can, are, up, had, my, her, what, there, out, this, have, went, be, like, some, so, not, then, were, go, little, as, no, mum, one, them, do, me, down, dad, big, when, it's, see, looked, very, look, don't, come, will, into, back, from, children, him, Mr, get, just, now, came, oh, about, got, their, people, your, put, could, house, old, too, by, day, made, time, I'm, if, help, Mrs, called, here, off, asked, saw, make, an.

Download a list of the top 100 high frequency words to print and use for at-home spelling practice.

What order do children learn high frequency words in?

Children are taught to read in phonics 'phases', and each phase has a corresponding list of high frequency words to learn.

High frequency words in Reception

Phase 2 phonics is generally taught at the beginning of Reception year.

Phase 3 phonics is generally taught in the middle / towards the end of Reception year.

Phase 4 phonics is generally taught at the end of Reception / beginning of Year 1.

 Decodable wordsTricky words
Phase 2 phonics high frequency wordsa, an, as, at, and, back, big, but, can, dad, had, get, got, him, his, if, in, is, it, mum, not, on, of, off, upthe, no, to, into, go, I
Phase 3 phonics high frequency wordsdown, for, look, now, see, that, them, this, then, too, will, withall, are, be, he, her, me, my, she, they, was, we, you
Phase 4 phonics high frequency wordswent, children, it's, just, from, helpcome, do, have, like, little, one, out, said, so, some, there, were, what, when

High frequency words in KS1

In Years 1 and 2, the list is expanded and includes ‘about’, ‘because’, ‘once’, ‘could’, ‘house’, ‘laugh’, ‘people’, ‘their’, plus days of the week, months of the year and the child’s own address and the school’s address. By now children are expected to be able to read most of them and progress to writing some of them.

This table shows the kinds of high frequency words children will be learning to read and spell during Key Stage 1:

 Decodable wordsTricky words
Phase 5 high frequency wordsdon't, day, old, made, I'm, came, by, make, time, here, saw, house, very, about, yourOh, their, people, Mr, Mrs, looked, called, asked, could

How should my child be practising these words?

“Make it fun and don’t overdo it,” advises Ian McNeilly, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English. For example, why not try:

  • Flashcards – but don’t use drawings alongside or your child may simply stick to looking at the drawing, not the letters. “A child’s ability to concentrate depends on their individual personality,” says Ian. “Five minutes could be enough for some, while others could do more.” You can download free high frequency words flashcards from TheSchoolRun for Reception, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.
  • Cut out high frequency word lists and stick them on a prominent place (the fridge, the back of their cereal packet, etc.), so your child has a visible reminder while they're learning them.
  • Magnetic letters – good for helping children with tricky words. Leave some up on the fridge so your child becomes more familiar with the word every time they get a drink. 
  • Memory games – place flashcards downwards for a game of pairs.
  • Ask your child to look out for high frequency words on signs or advertisments when you’re on a journey or a shopping trip. 
  • Choose three or four of the words and help your child make a silly sentence containing as many of them as possible.
  • Make sure your child sees you reading. “You are their best role model so show them you enjoy reading,” says Ian, “and make sure books in the house are easily available, not tidied away.”

My child doesn’t seem to be interested in looking at the words together.

Don't worry, and don't insist – all children learn at their own pace. “Don’t get too hung up if your child is not at the same stage as other children,” says Ian. “In the classroom, there can be a nine-month age gap between children – that’s 20 percent of their life in Reception – and it does make a big difference.”

How are high frequency words taught at school?

Teachers have various different methods of getting children used to reading and spelling high frequency words, for example:

  • Large flashcards and posters up around the classroom so that children are constantly made aware of these words.
  • Daily reading at school and recommendations for daily reading sessions at home with parents.
  • Spelling lists sent home for children to learn on a weekly basis.
  • 'Look, cover, write, check' sessions at school, where children are given a word to look at, then cover it over, write it from memory, then uncover the word and check if they were correct.
  • Giving children handwriting practice using their high frequency words – practising joining one letter to another helps them to remember the letter strings of these words.

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