Why not just call them phonemic and nonphonemic words?

Why not just call them phonemic and nonphonemic words?

Sight words, high-frequency words, red words…..are they the same thing? So what are the Dolch word list and the Fry lists all about? Why do we have these words grouped separately from other words? What makes them so special they get their own wall? The word wall, the place of honor, where words go to be memorized. I have read that merely having them in sight the students will learn them. Really, it’s that easy?

So we need to look at the lists that seem to make up the majority of classroom word walls. The Fry Instant Words, created by Dr. Edward B Fry, contain 1000 words which the student is expected to read instantly. In 1996 the lists were expanded from 300 to 1000 most commonly seen words. The list is broken up into 10 smaller lists of 100 words each.  Students are expected to read this mixture of high-frequency words in an instant. The Dolch list was created in 1948 by Edward W. Dolch. This is a much smaller list composed of ¨220 service words¨. In addition to these well known lists are a set of 1200 words by Rebecca Sitton, broken into groups called “No Excuses” words and Core words, then divided into grade leveled lists. Publishers have their lists too. Spelling the word is not greatly emphasized in learning these words. I have found some sites teaching the memorization of these words using tapping, underlining, rereading and of course the word wall.

Let’s take a look at the English language, approximately 87% of the language is decodable. That’s a pretty high statistic. This implies only 13% of words are nonphonetic, not following the patterns or rules of the English language. Many of these types of words are adopted from other languages such as banquet from French, bagel from Yiddish and patio from Spanish. Other nonphonetic words include our function words (to, do, of, a, the, etc) as well as the many Old English words which changed pronunciation during the Great Vowel shift. Their spellings did not change. They include words such as great and could. So if that is the case why don't we lump words into two categories, phonemic and nonphonemic? With that said let’s forget the previously mentioned labels and move forward in this post calling them phonemic and nonphonemic.

Phonemic words are decodable. The patterns of the words fall into the 40 some sounds of the English language. We can easily isolate the sounds, rely on the phoneme-grapheme correlation and read or spell the unknown word. Students are taught the rules of the English language, they see the patterns and understand there will be exceptions. Older students are able to decode/encode words by syllable division and an understanding of syllable types. When students are taught in a systematic way they can have the tools they need to unlock the words. They don’t guess or choose which way looks right, they process the word intellectually.

Nonphonemic words do not follow the rules. They need to be taught using the letters in the word. Just like phonemic words, nonphonemic words need to be taught to automaticity. It isn't enough that the word is hanging on the wall, the student needs explicit instruction. Introducing sight words involve saying the letters as they write the word. This may take numerous attempts. Studies vary, but I once read that dyslexic students need upwards of 40 interactions with the word before it moves into long term memory. It isn't enough that they can read the word. They must be able to spell it, in more than one situation, to consider it mastered. Anna Gillingham wrote that a word is not mastered until a student can write it with their eyes closed.

Bringing words to automaticity requires the activation of several pathways in the brain. Using a multisensory approach we use kinesthetic, visual, and auditory methods to solidify both phonetic and nonphonetic words. Moving words from the working or short term memory to the long term memory frees up space for new sounds and words to be introduced.

If all teachers understood the structure of the language reading could make more sense to teach.  Memorization could be limited to the words that truly are not decodable. This is my hope, then perhaps fewer kids would fall between the cracks lost in endless circles of meaningless remediation. Phonics instruction works. Maybe we could have sound walls, not word walls.

Happy phonics!


updated 11/10/19:  With all this said I was quickly corrected by Dr. Dykstra that all words are decodable. It is true, but most instructors don't have the background to go there. I recently, after writing this blog post, embraced the idea that all words once learned are sight words. I also am retraining myself to incorporate etymology when teaching what I refer to as nonphonemic words. I am so appreciative for the conversations that expand our thinking. Being challenged makes me a better practitioner.

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Karen Sonday - March 9, 2020

I just reread this post because I couldn’t remember all the terms for this concept. What a great post this is! Thanks for the update/P.S. We’re always learning new stuff and it’s great that your blog provides an ongoing conversation on these topics. Keep up the great work, Pam! We love your posts, your products and your amazing contributions to this field.

Karen Sonday - April 30, 2019

Anna Gillingham called them learned words which is a good term also.

Pamela Mehlin - March 26, 2019

@Robin and Ray
Thank you so much for contributing to the conversation!

Ray Anderson - March 18, 2019

Thank you, Pam, for this wonderful article. It is an inspiration as I begin a new week of tutoring. I call sight words break-the-rules’ words, and we talk about what part of the word is strange. I believe that at least 40 interactions with a word are necessary to move it to long term memory. It is frustrating for my students when they cannot remember the spelling of were, as an example, when they proudly knew it yesterday or last week. They resist using kinesthetic methods writing words with their fingers on the desk or writing it multiple times with a pencil on paper. Students who are in 3rd grade or higher do not like tracing unknown words as they reading when it is such an effective practice. They often seem embarrassed to do it.
Despite the challenge of nonphonetic words, my students get excited when they have mastered a long list of them. Their success is more exciting for them than with words they can sound out.

Robin Rovick - March 18, 2019

I think it is important for students to know that a word follows the “sound rules” or not, so I always teach my students that ‘red words’ don’t follow the rules. Since it is important for emerging readers to have a bank of words that they need to start reading – high frequency words – I will make sure they know those but also know which ones aren’t phonetic. They learn them in the same manner as red words but know that the sounds they need to read them are coming on down the road. I don’t spend a lot of time on this concept, just plant the seed that they will get to those but they need to learn them now. When we do get to the phoneme that was in that word (for example, ou in you) they have an ah-ha moment! I color code the ring of words on their word ring, so they know to use letter names and not sounds. I also have the Dolch list divided into phonetic and non-phonetic, which is helpful for teachers since they often don’t know the difference.

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