However, it is important to know the correct definitions of a high-frequency word and a sight word. High-frequency words are words that appear frequently in written language. Some high-frequency words are regular (e.g., like), and some are irregular (e.g., said).

Sight words are any word that can be recalled without having to “sound it out.” In other words, the word is known automatically. Sight words are stored in our orthographic lexicon and can be recalled easily. Sight words can also be regular (e.g., marble) or irregular (e.g., was).

Red Words are 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.

IMSE uses the term Red Word because the visual color red reminds students that these words are irregular. Lists of these words can be found on the Dolch List, Fry Instant Words, or in the index of many decodable readers. 

Red Word instruction is an essential part of the weekly Orton-Gillingham lessons. Irregular words make up a large percentage of words that students encounter in their reading and writing, making it essential to include them in daily practice to enhance automatic word recall.    

When we encounter familiar words (i.e. sight words), our brains can recognize them in less than 1/20th of a second. Skilled readers can recognize words accurately and automatically when reading, making decoding effortless and improving fluency and comprehension.

So, building the student’s sight word bank is a primary goal. For this to happen, students need good research-based instruction and ample opportunities for review and practice. Here are some Red Word essentials. 

Adopt an evidence-based instructional sequence

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

IMSE’s instructional sequence for learning a new Red Word teaches the students a systematic process 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).

If the student is introduced to the parts of the word that contain regular and irregular spelling patterns for each selected word, they will have an advantage in mapping these words into long-term memory for automatic word recognition. 

Emphasize irregularities

At the onset of the introduction of a new Red Word, the teacher takes the time to analyze the word for irregular spellings. To emphasize this, the teacher will ask the student to identify how many and which sounds they hear in the word.

For example, in the word “does,” the student would identify the three sounds, /d/-/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 confirms (or corrects) the responses as the correct letters are written. The teacher draws a comparison to sounds that are expected (represented by a matched phoneme-in this word, the /d/) or unexpected (irregular spelling-in this word, the oe represents /ŭ/  and s represents /z/).

It may be helpful 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 essential step should not be skipped with any students at any age or level.

Categorize Red Words

By examining the various lists of Red Words more carefully, teachers can integrate high-frequency words into their phonics lessons to allow students to focus on spelling patterns to enhance their attention to the irregularities while recognizing repeated spelling patterns or features of words.

Selecting words for instruction in groups or clusters will enrich learning and increase the number of words that can be taught in a lesson.

There are several Red Words that are decodable and these words should be incorporated into the concept lesson whenever possible to piggyback on the student’s knowledge and linguistic vocabulary.

A variety of categories for grouping Red Words have been identified on the Reading Rockets website. In addition, many of the Dolch list words have been sorted by spelling patterns for reference and suggestions for effective instruction (

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

Select words that have a beginning sound that has 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, I

Known spelling pattern

Group words by the same vowel sound (i.e. had, can, am, that all 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, by, 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. has, his, as, is).

Build a base

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

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

Review and practice

The Red Word instructional sequence facilitates and activates memory. The use of a multi-sensory approach to introduce pronunciation and spelling combined with repetitive review and practice assists the information to move from working memory and stored in our long-term memory.

However, to ensure that this is occurring, the review and practice step needs to be considered an essential part of Red Word learning. Practice definitely makes perfect here!  

Since students often review red words outside of school, it is important to educate parents about the multisensory process and the potential outcomes of daily practice.  

The instructional sequence for teaching a new Red Word integrates learning to both spell the word and read the word. Teachers need to ensure that students have ample opportunities to apply their Red Word learning to both reading and spelling throughout the week. To find activities to promote Red Word review and practice, go to and be sure to get your Red Word Booklets today!

Sign up for our LIVE virtual Orton-Gillingham training! We are now offering half-day, evening, and weekend options to best fit your schedule. 

The IMSE approach allows teachers to incorporate the five components essential to an effective reading program into their daily lessons: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. 

The approach is based on the Orton-Gillingham methodology and focuses on explicit, direct instruction that is sequential, structured, and multi-sensory.

It is IMSE’s mission that all children must have the ability to read to fully realize their potential. We are committed to providing teachers with the knowledge and tools to prepare future minds.

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