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Sight Words, Zipf’s Law, and Reading Fluency: Yes, They Go Together


High frequency words are the words that readers encounter the most often in printed text. Another term that you hear teachers and parents use when talking about early reading is the term sight words; words that are encountered so often that they should be learned and/or memorized to the point that the reader can recognize them almost automatically as soon as he or she sees the word. By committing these words to memory, they are freed up to use their phonetic rules to attack new, or more complicated, words.


High frequency and sight words can be either “regular”, that is, phonetic rules apply, or “irregular”, where phonics don’t work quite as well, but these words are foundational building blocks for future reading fluency and comprehension.


In most cases, high frequency words and sight words are used as interchangeable descriptions of those words that we read very often.


“How often?”, you might ask – well, very often. In fact, George Zipf, a linguistics mathematician from the early 20thcentury, came up with a handy-dandy mathematics formula to determine the frequency of word use that was so good that it was later termed as Zipf’s Law.


A lot of math was involved, but essentially, he was able to determine a predictable pattern of word use that could generate a list of the most frequently used words, and just how frequently they occurred. For example, the word “the” is the most frequently used word in English, and it occurs almost 7% of the time in print (and speech for that matter). The second most frequently occurring word is the word “of” coming in at about 3.5% of the time.


So, if the child commits just those two words to memory that can be recalled on sight, he or she has already mastered over 10% of the reading material he or she will encounter.  And to go a step further, the 100 most frequently occurring words make up about 50% of all reading materials. If a child can master and memorize just those 100 words, it allows them to move more fluently through any reading material they encounter and allows their energy to be spent on any new, or less frequently occurring, words.


More on high frequency words, sight words, and fluency to come. If you have any questions or want to schedule an appointment with us, please contact us at 865-974-6177 or