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



One thought on “Teaching Learned/Sight/Red Words

  1. This is a great post! Always helpful to hear how others teach red words/sight words. I appreciate how you broke it down in your post and will definitely use the tic tax toe board – thank you!


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