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High-Frequency Lie: Some Words Can't Be Sounded Out



Everywhere you go in education today, you’ll find eager experts confidently chattering about so-called “high-frequency words,” and how many of these MUST be memorized as a sight-word because they’re spelled in odd ways that confound children. Enter sophistry.

The gist of what the experts are saying is that the English language must be divided into two sub-languages. One of these is phonetic and you learn to read this language in the old-fashioned phonetic way, A is for Apple, B is for Boy. The other sub-language consists of words that are so peculiar that they seem to violate all the phonetic rules (e.g., with, he, you, was, are). It’s not humanly possible for children to sound out THESE words. The only solution is to memorize them as designs, i.e., as sight-words.

Reflect on this. The self-appointed experts are asking the child’s brain to flip back and forth from sounding-out to pattern-recognition. These processes occur in different parts of the brain. Compare rubbing your head and patting your stomach at the same time, or trying to pronounce every other word in this article as English or French. For the ordinary person, this schizophrenic switching back-and-forth adds a great burden and makes fluent reading almost impossible.

But this prescription is universally promoted in our public schools. It’s used as a reason for not teaching systematic phonics from day one. So a tiny difficulty is said to justify vast damage. Vicious nonsense.

Forcing children to memorize high-frequency words as sight-words is probably the main reason why only one-third of fourth graders and eighth graders are rated “proficient.” The two-thirds who are less than proficient would be more accurately labeled “victims of sight-word foolishness.”

(Please keep in mind that a sight-word is not a “vocabulary word.” A sight-word is a design, for example, like #. There’s no visual info about how to pronounce this thing. You memorize it any way you can: “let’s see...two horizontal lines...two vertical lines at an angle...pronounced ‘number’.” Converting common English words into sight-words is a step with few benefits and many harmful consequences.)

This mistaken strategy is one of the most destructive features of American education, and yet it keeps going and going, impervious to common sense and historical experience. What to do? Well, I think I have a way to explain this lunacy to everyone, even people with only a small interest in reading or education.


Please imagine that you are young and an avid reader of comic books. Recall all the extraordinary words that appear in those comic books--weirdly spelled words that communicate action, explosions, speed, emotions, etc. On the Internet, I found comic books from the old days and collected these typical examples:


Now, without exception these words are MORE IRREGULAR than the so-called high-frequency words. But all of us read them effortlessly. Because we are phonetic readers and we read what is in front of us. Where is the problem?

The Education Establishment, with its usual perversity, has turned a minor nuisance into the end of literacy, and promoted a solution that makes everything worse.

So they end up needing to claim that in order to read these comic books, children would have to first memorize “CRAK” and “G’WAN” as designs (sight-words).

Comic books as we experienced them would not have been feasible. “ULP” would be the equivalent of putting Russian in an American comic. Unreadable.

In fact, you can fill up comic books with all the weird words you want; and we read them effortlessly. That’s the thing I want to repeat 1000 times: we (including children) read the strange words more or less easily, whether it’s “eecckkk” or “thioredoxin.” This is the genius of phonetic language.


For context, let’s consider what a word that can’t be sounded out would look like.

Suppose English had a word like “g3yl” and I told you it was pronounced “potassium.” No question, that word can’t be sounded out. You’re going to have to memorize it as a sight-word.

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But we don’t have any words in English like ”g3yl.” The high-frequency words that the experts are talking about are simple words such as: I, have, on, the, for, had. They are irregular, a little, but not so much that most of us even noticed this when we were learning to read.

Let’s say you see “have” for the first time. How far off can you go? Rhymes with “Dave”? Rhymes with “ave,” as in “Ave Maria”? You’re still close. Probably, by context, you know quickly enough that this is what you’ve been saying for the past few years, as in “I have 50 cents...” What’s the big deal?

So the sophistry is to make it seem that kids stare at “have” and don’t know what to do next. “Hotel?" “November?" "Battleship?"

It would be tedious to analyze all the sight-word one by one. But look at them for yourself. How many alternate pronunciations can you come up with. Most will be close enough for you to realize what the word is. (Remember that kids are not working in a vacuum. They already have 10,000+ pronunciations in their memories by age 6. Children have heard and spoken all the high-frequency words, probably HUNDREDS of times. But suddenly they'll stare at "of" and be hopelessly lost? Sure they will.)

Amazingly, many off these so-called weird words rhyme with each other (he, she, the, we.) That’s as phonetic as you can get. If kids know the alphabet, they know how to say “I” and “a”. Why do all these experts claim that “I” and “a” can’t be sounded out? Was this ever a problem? Bizarre.

It’s irresponsible that so-called educators would actually mount a campaign against learning to read on the grounds that some words are just IMPOSSIBLE to sound out. Obviously to me, these experts don’t want kids to learn to read. Once they’ve been reduced to semi-literacy, then all kinds of remedial programs kick in. Perhaps that’s the real goal. Money. If not money, then the goal must be social leveling through planned illiteracy.


As I started to study phonics, I heard from various tutors about the concept of “nonsense words.” It didn’t make any sense to me; why bother kids with words that don’t exist? Finally I understood. If you show nonsense words to a sight-word reader, that child won’t be able to read those words, revealing the problem. Here are some examples: bef, mah, rej, and many others you could easily make up. The child has never been asked to memorize these as sight-words and the child cannot read phonetically. Ergo, that child will say nothing as he struggles to guess. But you and I, because we are phonetic readers, say “bef” and life goes on.

So nonsense words and comic book words reveal much the same truth: real readers can read anything. Sight-words readers are hobbled at every turn. All that’s required, at most, is a little flexibility to read unfamiliar words. You do the best you can and you’ll usually be 80-100% accurate. That’s if you are a phonetic reader. But the sight-word reader simply stops. He has no sure way to read a strange word. So he starts into an analysis of context and hopes to make a lucky guess. Or he skips ahead. That’s actually a recommended technique.


I’ll bet that many of you reading this, and dealing with these issues for the first time, are stunned by the insanity of depriving children of the ability to read phonetically. In practice that means they will be unable to read “bef,” “mof,” “ULP” and the rest. The child can read only those designs already memorized. The child’s vocabulary is only as large as the hundreds or thousands of word-designs already in his memory.

But he couldn’t go anywhere in the street without seeing hundreds of other words that weren’t known to him. Even a child with an exceptional memory can rarely master even 2000 sight-words. Point is, memorizing sight-words is hard work and, finally, a dead end. The memorization takes a long time, and never goes very far, which is why this method is so devastating.

Here’s how it works at best. In the heyday of Whole Word, children were shown a design like “dog;” the teacher would explain that the “g” looks like the tail on a dog, and the “d” is like the face, and the “o” is of course the body. And so you would use those clues to commit that shape, that design, to your memory. ("DOG" is another problem, as discussed in video.)


Below are some typical quotes found on the internet, where various people pretend to know that there are many words that can’t be sounded out:


“High-frequency words, often times referred to as sight words, are words that students encounter frequently in reading and writing. It is critical that readers and writers develop automatic recognition of these words. Comprehension begins to break down when students focus on trying to decode or sound out individual words. Learning to recognize high-frequency words by sight is critical to developing fluency in reading.”


“High-frequency words are often classified in one of three groups:

NON-PHONETIC WORDS—those needing to be recognized by sight because they can't be sounded out (for example, was, through).

FREQUENTLY OCCURRING WORDS—those needing to be recognized easily because they occur so often. When students have a thorough understanding and mastery of high-frequency or sight words, independent reading typically improves because this knowledge enables students to use context clues, increases students fluency and ease of reading, enables students to read greater amounts of material and for longer periods of time, and allows students to focus on comprehension of a text rather than on the decoding of individual words...”


Miss M. shows you a technique for learning ‘high frequency words’ at home. This ‘sight vocabulary’ can't be ‘sounded out’ and just need to be learnt by rote. See your child's teacher or check out our website for a list of such words.


“High-frequency words are the words that appear most often in printed materials. According to Robert Hillerich, ‘Just three words I, and, the account for ten percent of all words in printed English. ‘High-frequency words are hard for my students to remember because they tend to be abstract," says first grade teacher T. 'They can't use a picture clue to figure out the word with. And phonics clues don't always work either...Recognizing these words gives students a basic context for figuring out other words. Once they recognize the, they can predict with amazing accuracy what the next word will be." (This sounds a little insane. I assume there is a picture, so the kid sees "the XXX" and a picture of a horse, and therefore is able to "predict" that XXX is "horse." Note that "the" is a sight-word and "horse" is a prediction. Is real reading even part of this scene? I'm afraid not.)


“Learning to read is made easier when your child can recognize on sight the words which occur most frequently in the English language. Although phonic skills (letter sounds etc.) are important for learning to read, there are many words which don't follow the most simple rules and are therefore difficult for beginner readers to sound out, such as have, the, he, my, was, are and could.”










To master just these 100 words typically takes more than a year, maybe two. Of course, in that time, kids could learn to read. Furthermore, you don't ever really master even these 100 words, because they will appear in so many variations. Again, that's the point of the video.


For a thorough look at the history of the assault on reading, see "30: The War Against Reading" on, the writer's site.



Phyllis Sprout from Mashpee, Massachusetts on September 26, 2013:

I'm glad you brought up the word, have. I have been having a lot of fun quizzing teachers on why we pronounce the word with a short vowel 'a' sound instead of a long 'a' sound that would be indicated by the presence of the silent 'e'.

I have met exactly two people who knew the rule but only in part. From :

Noah Webster, author of the first American dictionary, decided that no American English words would end in the letters 'u', 'i', 'v', or 'j'. Ninety-eight percent of the words on the Dolch list are phonetically regular. We just need to rediscover the thirty spelling rules that make them easy to decode. The videos on the website and on YouTube will clear up much of the whole language confusion. Encourage your teacher friends to check it out. This is the kind of professional development that should be going on in every school in America. Don't wait for your teachers to get the message. Put your feet up, pour a cup of coffee and be prepared to be amazed about what you never knew about the English language. I tutor non-readers using Alpha-Phonics by Sam Blumenfeld. It works great but I will be adding many of the explanations I have learned from Denise Eide on her Logic of English website.

Bruce Deitrick Price (author) from Virginia Beach, Va. on March 06, 2013:

So what's the problem? They need to learn to read them phonetically, not as sight-words.

Kat on March 06, 2013:

So what's the problem? Kids need to learn to read these words, so get it done. Do what works. Don't fight the teacher, work with her . I promise every teacher goes in to the classroom every morning hoping every kid masters every objective and makes 100 on everything. I know that never happens, but she wants it to.

David Morgan on September 30, 2012:

Hi Bruce,

I agree with what you are saying.

The costs of being taught sight words are very high for many children. Memorisation can become their main or only strategy and that leads them onto a reading plateau with no obvious way off it, despite a lot of hard work.

For a system that gets better results, we have coined the term "Guided Phonetic Reading", which is more jargon I guess, but does try to explain the approach we use! Effectively we view reading as a skill that you develop through good, regular decoding practice sessions. The trick is in how you help the child decode all the unfamiliar words they are faced by.

We don't find the children have any problem at all with the supposedly irregular words, once they are familiar. Your subconscious brain is not rational in that way.

In fact, classic phonics instruction can also cause difficulty because it holds the process in the declarative memory and forms certain grapheme-phoneme links too strongly. That makes it harder for the child to be open to all the other spelling patterns used in English. Even the phonetic alphabet begins that process.

You can see more information on our site if it is of interest. Just google the term guided phonetic reading and a page should pop up on our Easyread website.

Don't hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions on it.

Best wishes David

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