What Are Red Words?

You may have heard other educators refer to Red Words as “high-frequency” or “sight words.”

High-frequency words are words that frequently appear in written language and can be either regular (e.g., had) or irregular (e.g., does).

Sight words are words that do not have to be “sounded out” in order to be recalled. In other words, the word is known automatically, is stored in our orthographic lexicon, and can be recalled easily. Sight words can also be regular (e.g., not) or irregular (e.g., my).

The Orton-Gillingham methodology defines Red Words as irregular words that do not follow a particular pattern. Red Words can also be high-frequency words that students must learn before the specific concept has been taught.

Many educators use the term Red Word because the visual color red reminds students that these words are irregular. The Dolch List, Fry Instant Words, and the index of many decodable readers contain lists of these words.

Red Word instruction is an essential part of the Orton-Gillingham approach and should be used on a weekly basis. A large percentage of words that students encounter in their reading and writing are irregular, making it important to include them in daily practice to improve automatic word recollection.    

Our brains can recognize familiar words (i.e. sight words) in less than 0.2 seconds. Experienced readers can recognize these words accurately and automatically when reading, making decoding effortless, which improves fluency and comprehension.

Building a student’s sight word bank is a primary goal of research-based instruction like Orton-Gillingham. This provides ample opportunities for review and practice. Some Red Word Essentials include:


Adopting the Orton-Gillingham Methodology

Irregular spelling patterns make Red Words challenging to learn and master. Orton-Gillingham provides a multi-modal approach to Red Word instruction that will activate a student’s learning modalities with the visual, auditory, tactile/kinesthetic feedback essential to promoting long-term memory.

Through Orton-Gillingham instruction, students learn new Red Words in a systematic way, engaging them in steps that integrate gross and fine motor movements, finger tracing, simultaneous verbalization, motor/muscle memory, writing, and short-term memory (digit span memory). 

Students gain an advantage in mapping words into long-term memory for automatic recognition if they are introduced to the word parts that contain regular and irregular spelling patterns.


Emphasize Irregularities

When introducing new Red Words during Orton-Gillingham instruction, educators should take the time to analyze the word for irregular spellings. To highlight this, educators should ask the student to identify how many and which sounds they hear in the word.

For example, in the word “was,” the student would begin by identifying the three sounds, /w/-/ŭ/-/z/, by placing tokens to represent each of the sounds in the word. The teacher would then ask the student what letters they would expect to spell each sound.

The teacher will then either confirm or correct the student’s response as the letters are written. The teacher then draws a comparison to sounds that are expected (represented by a matched phoneme in this word, the /w/) or unexpected (irregular spelling in this word, the a represents /ŭ/ and s represents /z/).

It’s recommended for the student to see the unexpected spelling(s) highlighted in red and to count how many irregular spellings the word contains.

This process solidifies the student’s understanding of its Red Word properties and also points out parts of the word where the student can apply phonic decoding knowledge. This step is essential for any student, regardless of age or level.


Categorizing Red Words with Orton-Gillingham

Teachers can integrate high-frequency words into their phonics lessons by carefully examining the various lists of Red Words. This allows students to focus on spelling patterns to enhance their attention to irregularities while recognizing repeated spelling patterns or features of words.

By selecting words for instruction in groups or clusters, you are able to enrich learning and increase the number of words that can be taught in a lesson.

Decodable Red Words should be integrated into the concept lesson whenever possible to piggyback on the student’s knowledge and linguistic vocabulary.

Reading Rockets has identified a variety of categories for Red Word grouping. In addition, many of the Dolch list words have been sorted by spelling patterns for reference and suggestions for effective instruction (readingrockets.org).

Here are a few of the recommended categories from their article:  

Concept Matching – As students are learning concepts c-qu and VC, CVC syllables, select words that can be incorporated into the phonics lesson for blending and dictation. Examples include can, not, it, and did. 

Known beginning sound – To capitalize on the students’ literacy familiarity, select words that have a beginning sound that has previously been taught. This adds regularity to the Red Word and can help to build a sight word bank early in learning. Examples of words include to, you, for, and I. 

Known spelling pattern – Group words by the same vowel sound (i.e. had, ban, am, bat, call contain short /a/), digraphs (i.e. what, then, such), or blends (black, must, sent).

Same vowel spelling pattern – Teach words that share a common vowel spelling in groups, such as he, be, me, we, she (long e), go, no, so (long o), my, fry, why (long i).

Similar spelling patterns – Group words for instruction when they have the same spelling pattern (i.e. could, should, would).

Shared spelling and sound – Cluster words that all contain /z/ spelled with the letter s (i.e. please, hers, as, is).


Build a Base with Orton-Gillingham

Beginning at the start of kindergarten, teachers should introduce Red Word instruction at the onset of Orton-Gillingham instruction and plan to teach high-frequency words that they will regularly encounter in grade-level text. 

These words will also complement their concept learning and provide more options for sentence construction and spelling. While there are no absolute conditions for choosing the first dozen Red Words in kindergarten, most teachers are very familiar with the most commonly faced words.  


Review and Practice with Orton-Gillingham

The Red Word instructional sequence aims to facilitate and activate memory. The use of Orton-Gillingham’s multisensory approach to introduce pronunciation and spelling combined with repetitive review and practice transfers the information from working memory to storage in our long-term memory.

The review and practice step needs to be considered a crucial part of Red Word learning. Practice definitely makes perfect here!  

It is important to educate parents about the multisensory process and the potential outcomes of daily practice since students often review Red Words outside of school.  

Learning to both spell the word and read the word is a part of the instructional sequence for teaching a new Red Word. Teachers need to ensure that students have ample opportunities to apply their Red Word learning in both reading and spelling activities throughout the school week. To find activities to promote Red Word review and practice, go to https://www.pinterest.com/ortongillingham/red-words/.