The Guidebook

The hfw Project includes a teacher guidebook which has 2 distinct sections

Section 1 - High Frequency Words: The what and the why contains background information about high frequency words and English orthography.

Section 2 - High Frequency Words: A teaching plan contains information about implementing this with your students.

Below is a sample of the information in Section 1

High Frequency Words: The what and the why

What are function and content words?

English words can be categorized into two groups: function words and content words. Content words are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Function words are the words in a sentence that connect the ‘important’ information contained in the content words. For example, the bolded words in ‘The cake is on that table,’ are function words that indicate the relationship between the content words cake and table. Function words don’t have the strength of meaning of content words. Out of context they can’t easily be sketched, unlike cake or table, yet these function words help make the meaning of the sentence clear. As such, they have a very important grammatical purpose, which contributes to sentence level meaning. Three-quarters of our list’s words can act as function words.

Function words include

  • determiners/articles: a, an, the, that

  • pronouns: he, him, she, they,

  • prepositions: to, at, in, of

  • conjunctions: if, then, and, however

  • relating/linking and auxiliary verbs: be, have, can, may, do (as they are usually unstressed)

Function words are generally unstressed in sentences, meaning they are not emphasized. Function words are a closed set, meaning we rarely invent new ones. People estimate there are around 300-400 (Pennebaker & Chung, 2007). To illustrate how few there are, it is estimated that the average native English-speaking 8-year old knows around 10,000 words. In fact, many people suggest there are over one million content words in English. When new words are coined, they will be content (lexical) words. Even though function words account for far less than 1% of the average native speaker’s vocabulary, they make up around 55% of the words we use on a daily basis (Pennebaker, 2013).

Some function words can also serve as content words depending on the context…

English words can be categorized into two groups: function words and content words.

Below is a sample from Section 2

High Frequency Words: A teaching plan

The essential components for teaching a new high frequency word

There are three main things to keep in mind when teaching new words. They will be expanded upon in the following pages.


First you need to ensure the children understand the word rather than just showing it in isolation and assuming they do. Using the word in sentences is an important initial step. Sharing the history of the word and connections to other words helps to strengthen the understanding. We call this anchoring the meaning.


Next you need to analyze the word with the children so they find out how the letters function - what they are doing. We believe you should look to the morphemic structure of words, the meaning-based blocks, before looking for the grapheme-phoneme links.


After this comes practice. The children need multiple opportunities to practice reading and writing the word, always paying attention to the graphemes.

Traditional approaches tend to skip straight to practicing the spelling, but as they have missed the vital information in anchoring the meaning and analyzing the word, the only way to practice is with automatic recognition by showing the word on a flashcard or by copying it, letter by letter. This is learning without understanding. For children with poor visual memories, it’s unlikely to be effective, not to mention reinforcing the notion that the spelling is random and cannot be explained. The 3-step process is better!