The value of teaching high frequency words to beginning readers as part of a ‘sight vocabulary’ (i.e. words read according to their orthography rather than according to their phonology) has been called into question by those advocating an exclusive role for synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading. Although phonic skills allow for greater generalisability than whole word reading, they do not necessarily give children early access to critical high frequency words which if acquired, would enable beginning readers to read a significant proportion of written English. This article therefore provides a theoretical framework, derived from instructional psychology, through which the structures of adult literature, children’s real books and three reading schemes (including ‘The Oxford Reading Tree’ and Read, Write Inc.) are analysed to see whether it is possible to identify an optimal level of high frequency words that can be taught at a sight level.

On the basis of the current research, recommendations are made for those that choose to incorporate sight vocabulary into their teaching methodologies, as to how to systematically identify an informed list of words to teach. The potential problems associated with teaching either too many, or too few are explored in terms of both the time involved in teaching this non-rule governed strategy, and the proportion of word tokens that can be read. The end result is a non-definitive list of 100 high frequency words that provide access to approximately 50% of all word tokens that are likely to be encountered in either adult’s or children’s literature.

Solity, J.E., E. McNab & Vousden, J. (Article in preparation) Is there an Optimal Level of Sight Vocabulary to Teach Beginning Readers? A development of Stuart et al’s (2003) Word Frequency List.

Research into Core Instructional Principles Study 7