High frequency words are quite simply those words which occur most frequently in written material, for example, “and”, “the”, “as” and “it”. They are often words that have little meaning on their own, but they do contribute a great deal to the meaning of a sentence. Some of the high frequency words can be sounded out using basic phonic rules, e.g. “it” is an easy word to read using phonics. However, many of the high frequency words are not phonically regular and are therefore hard to read in the early stages. These words are sometimes called tricky words, sight words or camera words. In addition to being difficult to sound out, most of the high frequency words have a rather abstract meaning which is hard to explain to a child. It’s easy to learn words like “cat” and “house” because they can easily be related to a real object or a picture, but how do you represent the word “the” or “of”?
Researchers reckon that learning just 13 of the most frequently used words will enable children to read 25% of any text (OK, that 25% wouldn’t make much sense on its own, but it’s a very good start). Learning 100 high frequency words gives a beginner reader access to 50% of virtually any text, whether a children’s book or a newspaper report. When you couple immediate recognition of the high frequency sight words with a good knowledge of basic phonics, that’s when a child’s reading can really take off.