Teaching high-frequency words and phonics – two conflicting approaches?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could teach those high-frequency words strictly within the phonic progression of our programme? We would teach ‘the’ when we got to teaching the digraph ‘th’ and the children would decode the word easily. Sadly, we can’t wait that long as children come across ‘the’ when reading the simplest of texts (even decodable ones) and realise that they cannot decode it initially.
Teachers offer children lists of high-frequency words to learn at home (I am not referring to those decodable high-frequency words which are decodable such as ‘mum’, ‘dad’, or ‘had’).   Are we not using two conflicting approaches? One says: sound out the word when you read and spell and the other says: learn the whole word by shape because it is too tricky!  How can we  teach two conflicting approaches without confusing our pupils?

I find that even quite difficult high-fequency words like ‘there’ can be taught as long as we  talk about them in the same way and  use the same strategies (segmenting and blending) that we use with decodable words. So, for example, when a child reads ‘the’ for the first time, the teacher can help by decoding the word for the pupil and pointing to ‘th’ and ‘e’ while saying the sounds and blending them for the pupil. Then when the child comes across ‘there’ the teacher does the same, this time saying the sounds and pointing to ‘th’ and ‘ere’.

Soon other high-frequency words like ‘where’ get the same treatment and the child begins to see a pattern: both those words have a grapheme that spells ‘air’. This all fits in later when they reach Phase 5 of ‘Letters and Sounds’and are taught alternative spellings for vowel sounds.

So we are not asking the children to read some common words only by shape. We are breaking the words into phonemes and they eventually slot into the larger picture of our rather complex but teachable phonic code. This way we demystify those ‘tricky’ inaccessible words that the pupil cannot decode.


  1. Excellent point. Years ago the phonics based early readers did not have words that the student was not ready to sound out. They used pictures to convey ideas along with the words the student was reading.

    But unfortunately that is not the case now. Your solution is a good one.

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