How to Teach Heart Words to Your Young Learners

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Have you ever wondered why some kids just can’t seem to grasp sight words even though they’ve been exposed to them over and over again? You aren’t alone! In fact, cognitive scientists and reading experts have determined that there is a better way for kids to learn sight words…and that’s where heart words come in!

But before we jump into the heart word method and how to teach heart words, I want to take a closer look at…

  • sight words, high frequency words, Dolch words, and Fry words, 
  • the connection between these word lists and heart words, and 
  • why all of this is critical for reading success.

Foundational Word Groups and Word Lists

Sight Words

Sight words are words that are not phonetically decodable because they have irregular spelling patterns and irregular sounds.

So we have always sent home Ziploc bags of sight word flashcards for our students to practice hoping that reviewing them enough times would result in memorization. 

This has been a common occurrence in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade for years.

The thought was that with enough repetition, even our young kindergarten students would have the ability to recognize and pronounce these words within a mere 3 seconds of viewing or “in a flash.” 

Thus, these “flash words” would be so deeply ingrained into the minds of our early readers that they would no longer have to struggle to read them.

High Frequency Words

High frequency words are the most common words in the English language.

The complete list of high frequency words contains 80% of the words students will encounter in books and other texts.

So are high frequency words and sight words the same?

Well, not exactly. 

You see, many high frequency words can be sounded out phonetically, such as “like, see, but, and, at.” 

But some are tricky words with irregular spellings, know was irregular words. 

These include words like “said, done, the, you, have.”

So to make this as clear as mud…some sight words are high frequency words and some high frequency words are sight words, but not all high frequency words are sight words.

Kind of like the fact that all thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs.

This is where the confusion comes in and also why people use these terms interchangeably.

Just remember that there are differences. 

Dolch Words

The Dolch sight word list was created by Dr. Edward William Dolch in the 1930s.

This particular list was comprised of the most recurring words found in children’s literature at the time.

He later updated the list and added a noun list to complete the 220 word list with the words grouped according to grade level.

Fry Words 

In the 1950s, Dr. Edward Fry revamped the Dolch word list by removing those words which were no longer relevant and adding many new words.

His version became known as the Fry Words list. 

This list is substantially longer than the Dolch word list boasting 1,000 words!

While the Dolch sight word list is grouped by grade level, the Fry lists are divided by frequency of occurrence.

However, since the words we find most frequently tend to be simpler words, it stands to reason that many of the first words on the fry word lists are words we teach to younger students.

So in my opinion, they are “kind of” both divided by grade level.

But that begs the question…what do these word lists have to do with heart words?

Well, the whole idea behind these word sets is that through rote memorization, use of flash cards, and simply creating a classroom word wall, these words will become part of our students’ long term memories. 

Unfortunately, as we know, it doesn’t always work that way for all of our students…especially those struggling students.

So that’s why teaching your students using the heart word method is going to change the game completely.

What are Heart Words?

The concept of heart words was introduced in 2016 by Dr. David Kilpatrick, an expert in the field of reading instruction and literacy particularly in the area of phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics, and reading fluency.

In his book Equipped for Reading Success, Dr. Kilpatrick distinguishes between what he coined as “heart words” and “head words.” 

These two groups of words are unique in that “heart words,” are sight words that CANNOT be easily decoded using regular phonetic strategies while “head words” are words that CAN be sounded out or decoded using phonics skills.

These heart words are typically high-frequency words that do not conform to typical phonetic rules or spelling patterns and must be recognized by sight.

Examples of Heart Words

  • Where
  • Do 
  • Very
  • One 
  • Said 
  • The
  • From 
  • Was 
  • Goes 
  • Their
  • Once 
  • Two
  • Give 
  • Put
  • Your 
  • Were
  • We
  • Me
  • About
  • there
  • Ball
  • Tall
  • Fall
  • Walk
  • Talk
  • Thank
  • Then
  • House
  • Mouse
  • hear
  • like
  • my
  • buy
  • all
  • knew
  • know
  • could
  • should
  • would
  • bear

So based on that information alone, you might think that heart words are no different than the traditional high frequency words students learn through memorization.

But the difference is that “heart words” can actually move into the “head words” category after explicit phonics instruction while sight words never change categories.

So how do we teach heart words?

How to Teach Heart Words

The concept of “heart words” underscores the importance of teaching both phonics skills and sight word recognition when teaching children to read. 

Basically we are going to show students how to use their phonics skills to sound out the decodable parts of the word, then then heart part comes in for them to identify the irregular parts of the word. 

There is still repetition involved when it comes to activities, but memorization doesn’t play the lead role like it does in traditional sight word learning. 

However, to teach our students using this heart word method, we need to make sure our students have a solid foundation in both phonological awareness and orthographic mapping.

So, this may mean you have to take a step back from your current instructional methods and lesson plans in order to teach, review, or reteach the basics your young readers need in order to move forward in their reading journey.

Build a Solid the Foundation

Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) in words before moving on to more complex sounds and spellings. 

Orthographic mapping is another vital component as it refers to the process by which individuals map or connect the visual symbols (letters or graphemes) of a written language to their corresponding speech sounds (phonemes) and words. 

This mapping is a critical step in becoming a proficient reader. 

According to Dr. Kilpatrick “good mappers” will develop three distinct skills: word study, automatic letter-sound associations, and highly proficient phoneme awareness. 

Therefore, a lack of phonological awareness and an inability to “map” correctly is directly correlated to reading difficulties.

So before you can move on to teaching more complicated phonics skills (including blends, digraphs, vowel teams, etc.), you have to make sure your students have mastered phonemes and become good “mappers.”

Otherwise, they are going to stay stuck.

Provide Explicit Phonics Instruction

Explicit phonics instruction is an organized and highly structured approach that will ensure that students understand the relationship between letters and sounds.

So instead of choosing an individual sight word list, organize words by phonics patterns. This might mean that you combine word lists in order to teach the skill in more depth.

For example, you could sort by…

  • short vowels (a, e, i, o, u)
  • long vowels (a, e, i, o, u)
  • cvc words
  • cvce words
  • blends
  • digraphs

By focusing on one particular phonics pattern at a time, you are helping students connect the letter sounds and the representative letter itself.

Once you’ve taken the necessary time to strengthen your students’ foundational knowledge and also explicitly taught at least the beginning phonics patterns, you are ready to begin introducing heart words.

Heart Word Mapping

After you have reviewed or retaught many of the basic phonics patterns to your students, you can introduce heart word mapping.

Remember how I said earlier that heart words were different from sight words in that sight words just had to be memorized?

Well, let me explain what I mean.

Say the Word

When you teach a heart word like “said,” you begin by having your students repeat the word and then have someone use the words in a sentence.

This ensures everyone knows the word and what it means in context.

Break the Word into Parts

Now that your students have hear the entire word, they need to visualize each individual sound.

Ask them how many sounds they hear in the word “said.”

When they say three, have them draw 3 lines side-by-side on their whiteboards.

Write the Word

Ask students what letter makes the first sound and the last sound.

Have them write these letters on the corresponding lines they drew on their whiteboards.

Because both of these letters are regular sounds that are easily decodable, students shouldn’t need much help with this part.

The tricky part of the word is the “ai” that is pronounced like /eh/. 

If you ask students what sound they hear, they will tell you they hear the short e sound.

And that’s a great thing because it shows that your students are making connections between what their ears hear and what their eyes typically see!!

Explain to students that even though it does SOUND like a short e, the irregular sound is formed by the two letters “a” and “i.” 

Map the Word

Draw a small heart over the /ai/ blend to indicate that this chunk makes this word a heart word.

Now have students repeat the process by saying the word, writing the whole word, and then adding a small heart over the top of the /ai/ vowel sound.

Repeating this process over and over with different words is going to help learners realize they don’t have to memorize 1,000+ words from all of the different sight word lists.

They can simply implement heart word magic and learn about the unique parts of irregular words.

This means they only have to learn a handful of sounds by heart. 

And trust me when I tell you, this is going to be the most effective way to get students to buy into reviewing and practicing their phonics rules. 

Temporary Heart Words

Once a heart word, always a heart word?

Actually, no!!

This is what makes hart words truly unique.

Since we begin teaching individual letters and individual sounds before moving to more complex blends and vowel combinations, it is highly likely that as students learn new phonics concepts they will be able to move words from the “heart words” category to the “head words” category.

Let’s use the word “then” as an example.

Obviously, this isn’t an unfamiliar word to our students, but unless you have taught the /th/ blend, this word is a temporary heart word.

 So after dividing the word into 3 parts, /th/, /e/, /n/, students will put a heart over the /th/.

While this is definitely a decodable word, it currently contains a letter combination your students haven’t yet been explicitly taught.

Once they have learned this new blend, they will be able to easily decode this word and store words with /th/ pattern in their long-term memory.

Thus effectively moving it from the heart word category into the head word category.

As we learn more and more on a daily basis about the science of reading research, we are starting to see that teaching heart words as a means to produce reading fluency in our learners aligns with every best practice.

Just sending home a high frequency word list without implementing whole group and small group explicit phonics instruction is futile.

The best part is that even our struggling learners have the potential to become fluent readers if we are just willing to adjust our our phonics lessons and our instructional practices.