Teaching Learned/Sight/Red Words

redwordexample*If you are looking to explore more details about the research and teaching methodology I will link a variety of places throughout.  Please note that the research shows that learned words are best taught in conjunction with systematic, explicit phonics instruction based on the 44 sounds of the English language.

What is the difference between learned words, high-frequency words, red words, or sight words? 

The best way to describe learned or sight words are words that our students need to learn/memorize/apply so that they can read and encode (spell) more fluently (with greater ease). They are the words that occur most frequently in the texts we read.  Some people call them sight wordsLinnea C. Ehri talks about sight words being “words we can read automatically” (2005). Ultimately all words eventually become sight words (words that students are not laboring to decode).  Red words or learned words are often used by those teaching with the Orton-Gillingham method.  Red indicates that we should pay attention to these words and that they may be tricky for us to spell.

Another defining feature of many learned words is that they are words that cannot be sounded out in the traditional method.  This is not always the case, but generally, there are words that are more difficult to sound out or remember their pattern.  For example, the word “give” is a learned or sight word because it does not follow the pattern for silent-e.  The “i” in the word give does not make a long vowel sound.  It has a short vowel sound in that word.

High-frequency words are often mixed in with these lists.  They are words that may or may not be words that are spelled irregularly or regularly but occur with high frequency in the English language.  Words like “a, down, please, I, three’ would be examples.

*If you are familiar with structured word inquiry, this is something you should definitely check it out.  It is another fantastic way to tackle learned words.  The basic premise is that all words have a reason they are spelled a certain way and it is connected to meaning.  By studying the etymology and meaning of the word you can discover why a word is spelled a particular way.  By conducting this structured word inquiry, you are using the scientific principles of developing a hypothesis that will not only help you with that tricky word but unlock other words with a similar structure or pattern. Structured word inquiry requires you to answer 4 questions; “What does the word mean?”, “How is it built?”, “What other related words can you think of?”, “What are the sounds that matter?”.  Structured word inquiry often ends by creating word matrices to show the relationships above and create meaning.  Here is a word matrix I made for the word give.


How do I assess my students or know where to begin instruction?  What are the Dolch and Fry words? 

Both the Dolch and Fry lists are organized in sequential order so that teachers can access lists of words that students typically encounter at various stages of their reading/spelling journey.  Before teaching words to your students, you will need to assess their knowledge to know where to begin.  If you want to research their history more fully here is some information about Dolch and Fry.  Basically, the idea behind them is that studies were composed to find out the most common words in texts that young children would encounter in their reading.  By focusing instruction on these words, their ability to read more fluently increases.

The first Dolch list according to my research was published in 1928 and then further developed into 30s and 40s.  There are other lists (Gates, Wheeler and Howe, Fountas and Pinnell) that are used and have been researched.  Dolch and Fry are just among the most commonly used lists.  The Dolch lists (200 words) were created to cover the words that students in PK-2nd grade typically use while the Fry list (1,000 words) covers words from 3rd-9th grade. Fry is a more “modern” version of the Dolch list and was last updated in the 1980s.  The Dolch list is organized by grade or age and the Fry list is in order of greatest frequency.

Click here for the Fry lists below:

Fry List #1 1-100

Fry List #2 101-200

Fry List #3 201-300

Fry List #4 301-400

Fry List #5 401-500

Fry List #6 501-600

Fry List #7 601-700

Fry List #8 701-800

Fry List #9 801-900

Fry List #10 901-1000

Assessing:  Where to start? 

An easy way to find out where to start with your students is to assess them using the first 100 Fry words list.  If your students are in PK-2nd grade it might be better to start with the Dolch lists, which you can pull based on the grade of each student.  Just be aware that there are words that both lists have in common.  Check out the resources section here if you are looking for those lists.

Reading:  When assessing students it is often helpful to have a blank piece of paper to cover each word as you move from one word to the next.  There are a variety of ways to keep track of each word.  Many teachers use paper copies and I also have a google form you can copy and use to keep track.  It has sections for both reading and spelling each word.  Each Fry list also has a 2nd sheet to help you keep track if you prefer the paper version.  It can be used either to track reading or spelling.

Spelling: I also have a blank sheet for students here to record the words you read to them.  The list contains 25 blank spaces for each set.


Once you have assessed your students correct each set.  Then decide how you want to keep track of the words for each student.  I usually keep a copy of their lists in a binder (see below).  When students have mastered each word, I use a highlighter once they have mastered those words.  This helps me know where I left off when monitoring several students at once.  This also allows me to differentiate more easily.


How do I differentiate my word lists for each student?

The method above should allow you to differentiate words for each student.  One way I assess a variety of students is to either rotate when I assess students.  Students in similar grade levels have similarities and you can give assessments in groups of 50-100 to help you keep track.

If I have students that are outliers, I also have given assessments where I will give students different words at the same time and use their initials to mark the words as I assess.

Once you have assessed, you can assign words to your students in the order that they missed them on assessments.

How do I start my learned words routine?

Once you have chosen words for each student I’ve listed a few ways I’ve used to teach the student using a multisensory method.  If you click here you will get the file with the student work sheets that you can print double-sided and use in class.

I tend to introduce 3 words a week.  You may also choose to only introduce 1 a week.  I would gauge how your students are doing in class.  I am also looking for mastery from the students and will keep a set of index cards that have their learned words on them.  I use a index card box to keep them when they have mastered them.  I usually put checks on the cards throughout the week to keep track of when I do a quick assessment.  I also include those words on their “Show What You Know” or assessment at the end of each week along with their other words.

The index are stored in the student’s binder for the week and then I grab them on Friday or at the end of the week for assessments.  Then all I have to do is read their cards when assessing.  I’ll update this post and add pictures of my learned words binder and index card box.  

Below are pictures from a FREE file that has the routine written out (S.O.S. and red word options) along with student paper and a learned word tic-tac-toe board.













If you are going to use the screens (cross stitch screens) I purchased mine from Amazon here, but you can also them at Michaels or JoAnn Fabrics.

I’ve also included a Tic-Tac-Toe board that you can use for homework or in class.  If you have any questions don’t hesitate to reach out!  My IG is:  LauraLitLab



Conferring: The Heart of Reading & Writing Workshop

Conferring with students has been cited by some experts as the “heart of the workshop“.  I remember hearing Isabel Beck talking about discovering student’s understanding of a story and she simply stated, “Just ask the child to tell you what the books is all about”.  In some ways its simple and yet the art of listening to a student and trying to discover the “heart of their writing” or intentions can often be a challenging skill to master.

I can remember a few conferences during which a child shared their writing with me and because of my desire to do it exactly as I was supposed to, I struggled to have something thoughtful to say to the student at the end.  Here’s a peek inside my brain during workshop:  (I’m sure I’m the only one 😉  

  • How many students am I meeting with today?
  • Make sure to share a compliment that is authentic & specific,
  • organically respond to the student,
  • choose a goal they could work towards, but is it the right one,
  • Where is that perfect tool I have saved somewhere for this goal?
  • try to remember who I’m meeting with next,
  • “Excuse me, Ms. K!” (shouts a student) 
  • and the list goes on and on.  

Any one else tired?!?  I have been able to relax quite a bit due to working with some amazing mentors and colleagues, but let’s be real, this stuff goes through our heads.


At other times we feel the weight of the standards or worry about the end result we hope to see in our student’s writing.  The child’s struggle with mechanics or grammar might jump out at us first.  We may be tempted to dive right into cleaning it up with (or even for) them without building their skills. At least this is where I first started when I began using writing workshop.  

It takes time to build TRUST with our students.  If we don’t confer, we don’t have time to build that trust.  The more we confer with students the easier and more natural it will be for THEM and for US.

Where to start and a few wise words:

This is a conversation.  It’s their writing and they are invested.  It’s how they see things.  You shouldn’t talk at them. We can make a huge impact on students when we’re sharing in the context of our student’s writing” –Mollie Cura – Literacy Consultant (Summer 2016 Workshop)

“Many teachers have discovered that one of the most powerful ways to to teach students to become better writers–if not the most powerful way–is to sit beside them and confer with them as they write”.  –Carl Anderson, Author of How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring

“Take a moment and pause after they share.  You don’t have to rush into coming up with the perfect strategy for them to learn.  Do what we often teach students to do; repeat back what you heard the child say.  Ask clarifying questions.  Don’t assume.”  -Two Writing Teachers

“Start with a loose or lean prompt when supporting a student (“Tell me more.  Does that make sense? or something general but that is specific to the student) and then layer the next prompt so that it gives them a bit more support.”  –Teacher’s College Reading Units of Study Institute, Lauren Kolbeck

What has worked for me & what I’ve learned from the Masters:

Conference Type #1: 

“Getting to Know You” Conference            (fill in cheesy acronym here:  GTKY?)  

When You Might Use:  Beginning of the year, when a student needs a boost or seems to be struggling, after you’ve done a reading/writing engagement survey or interview

  1.  Sit down side by side with your student as they are reading or writing.
    • I’ve found sitting where they work for these is pretty effective.  You’re on their turf.  🙂 
  2.  Ask if you can join them, “Mind if I sit down and see what you are working on?”  
    • This is the building trust conference.  You’re getting to know them.  🙂 
  3. Reading GTKY Conference: 
    • How’s reading going today? What book are you reading today? What’s it about?
    • This year (or whatever the context) my hope is that together I can support you in your reading & that we can work as a team to reach your goals this year.  Today I just wanted to check-in and see how reading is going for you.  
    • Can you read a bit to me? (they only need to read a few pages – enough for you to get a sense of how it’s going)
  4. Writing GTKY Conference: 
    • How’s writing going today? 
    • This year (or whatever the context) my hope is that together I can support you in your writing & that we can work as a team to reach your goals this year.  Today I just wanted to check-in and see how it is going for you.  
    • *If it makes sense, “Do you mind reading a bit of your writing to me?”  (sometimes a student especially at the BOY might be working on generating ideas & you may need to switch gears & talk to them more generally about writing) 
  5. Choose ONE strategy or reading/writing move they are using that you can share a “glow” or compliment about. 
    • Be specific & choose a compliment that you notice they are trying out & could be tied to goals that a strong reader/writer uses.  
      • Writing Ex:  “I noticed that you shared that you were using dialogue to show what your character was feeling right here.  It really helped me understand how they reacted to that situation. That’s a great strategy to use when you are writing!”
      • Reading Ex: “That was a tricky word you came across in the book.  I noticed that you broke the word into chunks that you knew and then blended it back together.  What a great strategy!”  
  6. Leave behind the “glow”/compliment with the student.  It can be a simple post-it, note in their writing notebook, etc. 

Conference #2:

Research/Decide/Teach Conference    (RDT — traditional conference)

When You Might Use:  you want to move a student to a new strategy or goal, beginning of a unit, before conferences or report cards to check-in

  1.  Sit down side by side with your student as they are reading or writing.
  2.  Ask if you can join them, “Mind if I sit down and see what you are working on?”  
  3. RESEARCH:  This is your opportunity to find out what they are working on and what you want to teach them to move from a strategy they might be on the cusp of discovering (teach from strengths).  
  4. Reading GTKY Conference: 
    • How’s reading going today?
    • What book are you reading today? What’s it about?
    • What did you think about it? (if you are meeting after they’ve done some STOP and JOTS or Reflections)
    • Can you read a bit to me? or Tell me a bit about your STOP and JOT.   
  5. Writing GTKY Conference: 
    • How’s writing going today?  What are you working on?
    • Can you show me where you tried that out?   
    • How is the strategy going?  What about the strategy has been tricky for you?  What are you most proud of in this piece?
    • For younger students (K-2) – this will take practice, you also may want to highlight things you notice them doing to help them explain, have them read a bit to you   
  6. Respond to their piece first as you would for any writing/reading.  (“Aw!  You wrote about your dog.  It sounds like you love him a lot!”)  Don’t just go right into teach mode.   
  7. Choose ONE strategy or reading/writing move they are using that you can share a “glow” or compliment about. 
  8. DECIDE:  Choose ONE thing (not more than that) the writer/reader needs, not necessarily something you’ve taught that day.  Also make sure it is something in their zone of proximal development or something they can apply in future pieces.  
  9. TEACH:  
    • Start with a clear structure that is similar to mini-lessons, “Today I’m going to teach you to ________ (skill) by doing _________ (strategy).
    • Keep it simple!  Use one example to show them how.
    • Writing:  Use a mentor text (your own, a sample of yours, or another author – could even be another student) to show them in chunked, sequential steps so they can replicate the process in their writing.
    • Reading:  Show them how to do it by using an example from their text or one you have prepared from your Reading Literacy Notebook (see link here for more details)
    • Then, ask them to try it out!
  10. LINK:  Leave them with an encouragement to use this strategy today and everyday.  Leave behind a post-it or something in case they forget.  Let them know that you’ll check on them again to see how it’s going. 

Research/Decide/Teach Conference Example from Jennifer Serravallo:   RDTConference Kindergarten Writing Conference Example from Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project (Genre:  Narrative):    KWritingConference

Conference #3:

“I’m Stuck” Conference

When You Might Use:  student is having trouble with stamina, generating ideas, transitioning from mini-lesson to independent work, not doing any STOP and JOTS (writing about reading), tons of sketching but no writing, setting expectations so they can do their best work

Tip:  It’s important to have expectations for independent reading and writing at the BOY (and review as needed) so that your expectations are not assumed.  You’ve taken time to make them clear and they’ve practiced the behaviors independently.  This is a step to use after that structure has been in place.

  1.  Sit down side by side with your student as they are reading or writing.
  2.  Ask if you can join them.
  3. Explain that you’d like to check in how things are going and that you’ve noticed something that you’d like to talk about (a conversation, not punitive)
  4. “I’ve noticed that…” Explain what you’ve noticed. Be specific and keep it simple.
  5. “How do you think that’s been going?  What is challenging?”  Ask them for their feedback.
  6. Explain the purpose.  Give them a strategy for how they can move forward.
    • Writing Example:  (but could easily be used in Reading)
      • “I noticed you have trouble getting started in writing and I wanted to check in and see how you feel about it.”  (this is a pattern you’ve noticed, not just a one time event).  After hearing their perspective (maybe they note it’s who they are sitting next to, not knowing what to write about, need some inspiration, etc.)  then you can focus on what strategy to use.  “Why don’t you try sitting over here today and see if that is helpful.  I also want you to set a goal today for writing.  We have 15 minutes left of writing time.  What is a goal you could set for yourself.  Let’s write it down on this post-it.  This always helps me when I set a goal.  I’ll check back in with you at the end of writing class.”     


One way I keep track of all this work is through the use of a Conferring Notebook.  I use many forms like the one below to keep track of what my students are working on.  Click HERE for a copy of this form OR you can click HERE for to purchase a copy of a file of all the forms I use for both Reading and Writing Workshop.  


There’s a lot here to contemplate and “chew on”. Hopefully this will be a helpful resource to your teaching in the future! 🙂 

What do you find is valuable about conferring? What is challenging about conferring? What is an area you want to strengthen in your conferring (compliment, teaching point, type of conferences to use, etc.)

-Laura Lit Lab

Developing the Mini-Lessons & Teaching Points

Once we’ve gotten a sense of what a student or group of students need to work on, we then choose a teaching point to focus on.  That teaching point is at the core of the mini-lesson, whether you are working with a whole group, small group, or individual student.  An important thing to keep in mind for the mini-lesson is a quote I heard during a trip to the Teacher’s College of Reading and Writing, 

“The goal of the mini-lesson is to teach skills that are important to the whole class and to inspire the kids to go off and do the work.  If the kids aren’t psyched to do the work or aren’t motivated, then it’s not doing its job.  I want kids to learn something if they are motivated.”  

The key to a powerful mini-lesson is hitting the following components:

  • Connection – real-world example, invites and motivates learners to connect to concepts
  • Teaching Point  – defining the skill, strategy, and purpose (see Developing the Unit Plan post here for more details). 
  • Teach – mentor texts/activities/think-aloud used to break down how to use the strategy to meet the goal (skill mastery)
  • Active Engagement – scaffolded instruction, students are trying out the strategy in the context of the group where you can provide direct feedback
  • Link – invitation to go off and use this strategy in their independent reading today and every day! 🙂 

In addition to the work above is how you set up what comes after your mini-lesson, which is typically your:

  • Independent Practice
  • Conferring (small group and individual)
  • Sharing

Here’s Lucy Calkins talking through the goals behind a mini-lesson.  

 Capture 2018-03-31 195057The videos below will give you a chance to look at your grade level (or grade level band) and pick out each element of the mini-lesson.  As you watch, look at it through the lens of identifying how to deliver the teaching point.

Kindergarten Writing Mini-Lesson:  Kindergarten Informational Writing-Expert Teaching:  Visualizing as a Tool

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3rd-5th Grade Band Writing Mini-Lesson:  Whole Class Instruction in Opinion Writing:  Teaching for Transfer as Students Move Between Persuasive Speeches and Petitions

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4th Grade Writing Mini-Lesson

Realistic Fiction:  Revising Lesson-Acting out the Parts to add what the characters would say, tone of voice, and specific actions

5th-8th Grade Band Writing Mini-Lesson

Teaching Students to Examine Craft Moves and Author’s intent in Mentor Persuasive Essay in Order to Support Revision

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Now use this planning sheet (or the one below) to help you craft a mini-lesson based on a teaching point you know your students need right now.  

Here are a few great planning resources below:

Mollie Cura’s Resource Site not only has a mini-lesson template, but also several other planning guides, conferring, notes, and MORE!  She even has the writing workshop conference presentation from the summer.  



Writing Partnerships

“It’s a great thing in life to find someone who can help you with your writing”.  Lucy Calkins

          What is the purpose of reading and writing partnerships?  How do they enhance your workshop teaching?  Are they necessary to a successful workshop?  Is it helpful to be with the same partner during a unit or even longer?  How can I refine my partnerships so my students can benefit from them in more meaningful ways?

These are some of the questions you might be contemplating as you either refine your partnerships or begin the process of establishing them.  Here are some helpful tools depending on the topic you are interested in exploring.  
Establishing Workshop Partners:

Refining Writing Partnerships–Talk and Routines:

Writing Partnership Anchor Charts: 

I love the simple language with visuals for students to understand how partnerships work.  The star post-it notes can extend your work throughout the year. 

Another way to organize your thinking about partnerships, possibly appropriate for 3rd and up.  Another simple way for a student to understand the routine of how partnerships work.   

A great way to show your own students modeling the behaviors on your chart.  This could be a great activity where you can have the students model what to do and what not to do with the final picture reflecting how partnerships can work.  

Have you read the Reading and  Writing Strategies book by Jennifer Seravallo?  They both have over 300 strategies for emergent writers in PK/K to 8th grade.  

Here is a list of chapters in the Writing Strategies book:  

Getting Started
Goal I: Composing with Pictures (18 strategies)
Goal 2: Engagement: Independence, Increasing Volume, and Developing a Writing Identity (27 strategies)
Goal 3: Generating and Collecting Ideas (38 strategies)
Goal 4: Focus/Meaning (25 strategies)
Goal 5: Organization and Structure (40 strategies)
Goal 6: Elaboration (45 strategies)
Goal 7: Word Choice (31 strategies)
Goal 8: Conventions: Spelling and Letter Formation (22 strategies)
Goal 9: Conventions: Grammar and Punctuation (35 strategies)
Goal 10: Collaborating with Writing Partners and Clubs (19 strategies)


“Cultivating” the Unit Plan – depth vs. width

This picture above/below (that is somehow cut off and I can’t figure out why…ha!) captures what I’m exploring as an educator right now.  How do we simplify our own lives and our student’s lives?  Lara Casey (author of Cultivate what Matters) has created a resource called powersheets that help you to plainly set goals and stay connected to what matters.   A friend gifted it to me and I have LOVED using it!  I highly recommend this resource.


It has made me reflect on my life as an educator.  We are constantly pulled in different directions, whether it is a standard we need to meet, a parent’s request :), a professional development conference, a colleague/grade level, or our own drive to create.


Then we take a step back and start to think about what we can accomplish in the time allotted (oh the time monster!) and how we can “boil down” the most salient teaching points for our students.  How do we help them to become better writers, readers, or citizens of the world?  🙂

This is where the unit plan has been so crucial.  I’m sure many of us have different versions of a unit plan.  Over the years I’ve tried different ones, but my tried and true is to use the TCRWP (Teacher’s College) model and make it my own.  I’ve focused on coming at this from a writing angle, but you could easily use it for reading too.  Test it out with one of your upcoming units and let me know how it goes! 🙂 .

Quick Tips for Developing the Unit Plan

  1. Pick out a unit that you typically do at this time of year.
  2. Collect your resources for developing the teaching points.  There are tons of great ones.  I use TCRWP’s Units of Study, Jennifer Serravallo’s Writing Strategies as my go-to books.  I listed a few more below.  What resources do you like to use? 
  3. Click here for a simple google doc to get you started (or one you’ve created) to input your teaching points.  If you need more information on how to develop your teaching points for each mini-lesson, check out more information below from Dana Murphy as a resource. *You just need to make a copy of it to make it your own.  🙂 
  4. Then, you want to develop your detailed unit plan.  This is also in the same google doc above if you scroll down in the document.  Include your connection, teaching point, mentor texts, teaching, active engagement, link, independent practice, and share here.  Adjust the above to make it work for your purposes.  Here’s a tiny snapshot of what it could look like.

5.  Refine and tweak as you go.  *I come back to this one throughout the unit, adjusting where things go based on how my students respond.  My tweak might be that I create a small group or scrap a lesson, or spend 2 days on one lesson, based on my conferring or thoughts I have during teaching.

6. As you move through the unit don’t forget to leave traces of your teaching and the student’s work in the room, so that you can refer to it throughout your unit.  This could be your version of the anchor chart.  There are lots of ways to do this, but here’s one I learned from Mollie Cura, literacy consultant.

Record your teaching points as you go through the unit.  This is a great way to help your students refer back to the previous lessons you have done. BTW, this picture on the right is a chart created by my teacher bestie, Cait!  🙂

Helpful Tip:  Take pictures of your anchor charts for the following year so you have a record.  You may not do it exactly the same, but having a reference is so helpful!


There are lots of resources out there, including the Units of Study book,Writing Strategies bookRozlyn Linder (Big Book of Details) and lots of other great authors to pull from (Ralph FletcherKatie Wood Ray, and more!).

Developing the Unit’s Teaching Points

Here’s a great template for developing teaching points (adapted from Dana Murphy):

Writers __________________ by ___________________ so that _________________.
(skill)                            (strategy)                          (purpose)

Some examples of teaching points in various genres:

  • Writers can develop a character’s inside story (skill) by using dialogue (strategy) to show what the character is thinking (purpose).
  • Writer can add details (skill) by zooming in a moment and describing all the sensory details (strategy) so that the writing creates a vivid picture in a reader’s mind (purpose).
  • Writers can link one part of their writing to another (skill) by using transition words (strategy) so that the reader can understand how the author has moved to a new topic or section (purpose).

If you’re looking for SIMPLE tips on how to pick out your teaching points, check out the picture from Stacey Shubitz (Two Writing Teachers).  She is a literacy specialist and former fourth and fifth grade teacher.  She has written the books Craft Moves and Day by Day.  If the picture is a little bit fuzzy, click the link below.


What unit are you interested in developing/refining?  How do you want to “cultivate” or simplify your unit to meet the needs of your students?