Red Word History

Posted by Guest Blogger on 11th Mar 2020

National Reading Month is going strong here at Brainspring!

What is a red word, and what are their origins? How much of our complex English language follows spelling rules compared to these irregular words that do not have decodable patterns? Using the Online Etymology Dictionary is a great resource to investigate these words. But why are students expected to know so many of these words so early in their education?

The Truth About Red Words

Approximately 15% of the English Language is non-phonetic.  Though many now call these red words, those who have been in education long enough may have also taught words from the Fry or Dolch list or used terms such as sight, high frequency, or snap words. Regardless of what an educator calls these words, all students need to instantaneously, without any effort, glide across all content areas of reading without these words putting up their own “stop signs.”

Brief History: Dolch and Fry Words

Both Dr. Edward William Dolch (1889-1961) and Dr. Edward Fry (1925-2010) created “sight or high frequency” word lists and believed that these words should be memorized as “whole units,” or the “look and say” myth which used picture and contextual clues.

In 1936, Dolch was the first to create a 220-word list based on the children’s books (grades K-2) of that time. About twenty years later, Fry’s list was organized based on the “frequency” of words used in grades 3-9 curriculum. Many of these words are found in both resources. One way to differentiate between the two lists is to note that Dolch’s 220 Word List excluded nouns, and Fry’s list included all the parts of speech.

Defining Red Words

There are two categories of red words. (1) Do fit a phonetic pattern but are taught later as an advanced spelling concept. (2) Do not fit a phonetic pattern: this means they cannot be sounded out, or the word is only partially phonetic, making it challenging to decode. However, students still need these high-frequency words to further progress their reading, spelling, and writing. Below are just some of the phonetic based “red words”:

  • Closed Syllable (such, them)
  • Open Syllable (I, he)
  • Magic-E (here)
  • Vowel Teams (see, hear, say)
  • Bossy R (for, her)

Why Do Students Need to Know These Red Words?

Interestingly, out of the estimated 500 red words found in English, about 200 are found in grades K-2 text. Mathematically speaking, based on several studies, 75% of these red words were covered in grade K-2 text alone. Since the goal is to produce fluent readers and writers, practicing these red words to automaticity is critical. A student must be able to read these words fluently in text and isolation and accurately spell these words.

The Importance of Arm Tapping

Arm tapping the letters of red words creates muscle memory. Each time a given word is practiced, the new neural pathway becomes more and more efficient. As a reading specialist, I am continually amazed by how quickly I can identify if a student has been routinely practicing red words in the classroom.

Recently, I had a student who was stuck on the word “want.” I told her that this was a red word and to say the letters (w-a-n-t) aloud while “arm tapping” them.  However, this student seemed confused with what was being asked, so I had her slowly repeat the letters while I arm tapped them on her arm. Before I could slide my hand down this student’s left arm to finish the word, the student shouted out the correct word.

As part of the red word routine, I am convinced that teaching these sight words in multisensory ways and using orthographic mapping (See Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success), is critical and life-changing for struggling readers. Without automaticity of sight vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and overall educational experience are impacted (Kilpatrick 43).




Written by Jennifer L. Padgett, M. Ed.

Jennifer is a Literacy Specialist, K-12

Mexico, Maine