Reading Teacher

Heart Word Mapping: A Magic Method to Teach Sight Words

Heart Word Mapping: A Magic Method to Teach Sight Words

In every reading lesson, there’s always room for fun, creativity, and maybe even magic.


If you’re planning to teach high-frequency or sight words, it’s time to add some heart word magic to your lesson plan.


Let’s uncover the difference between sight and high-frequency words, dive into the details of the heart word method, and help early readers learn those tricky heart words with a sprinkle of magic.

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Sight Words vs. High-Frequency Words


Simply put, high-frequency words are the ones most commonly seen and used in a child’s native language. In the English language, there are hundreds of recurring words: some examples include “said,” “it,” “was,” “for,” and “with.”


Sight words are more specifically defined as simple words that a reader can “see” and pronounce without sounding out or guessing. Examples include “the,” “a,”, “I,” “to,” and other words that can’t be sounded out easily out but appear regularly in decodable books.


There is some debate among reading experts regarding the difference between sight words vs. high-frequency words: we’re talking about the science of reading, after all! Some researchers argue that some sight words are phonetically regular  - and, therefore, decodable.


For the sake of simplicity, just remember that heart word mapping can be used to help readers learn both sight words and high-frequency words. The goal is to turn high-frequency words into sight words so that students can read them effortlessly.

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What are heart words?


Heart words are high-frequency irregular words that don’t follow the standard rules of spelling. These words are often compared to flash words: high-frequency and regularly-spelled words that many students learn “in a flash.”


Some common heart words include:

  • said
  • were
  • where
  • do
  • one
  • very


…and plenty more! The “magic key” to learning heart words is focusing on what can be sounded out. Even in these sneaky irregular words, students can put their decoding skills to action using the heart word method.

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How To Teach Heart Words


Once you’ve defined and created a list of heart words, it’s time to witness the magic of heart word mapping. Here are the main steps for teaching heart words to early readers:


1) Introduce the words and have students practice saying it aloud.


2) Together, tap out each sound you hear in the word. Students can use their fingers to tap and count the sounds. Tally the taps to determine how many sounds they hear in the word!


3) Identify the sounds in the word that can be sounded out phonetically. Once students have identified the regular sounds, they can place a colored box under each corresponding letter. Here’s a quick example.


a) In the word was, the /w/ sound is phonetically regular. However, the /as/ sound is irregular in this context - which can be tricky for little ears to hear!

b) Readers will place a colored box under “w”: the only letter that can be sounded out regularly.


4) Here come the irregular sounds! Students will place a heart under the letters that correspond to the irregular sound.

a) Again using the word was as an example, students would draw a heart below the /as/.


5) Educators should explicitly teach the irregular sound formed by the heart letters. The goal is to learn this sound “by heart” so that students can effortlessly read the entire heart word.


Heart Word Activities


The learning doesn’t stop here! After students create their heart word maps, they’re ready to jump into some heart-filled activities. Here are some ideas to get hearts beatin’ and youngsters reading with confidence.

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1.    Heart Word Hot Seat


Put heart words in the hot seat! Ask students a variety of interview-style questions about a given heart word:


a) What is its first/ last letter?

b) What are the heart letters?

c) Can you use the word in a sentence?

d) Can you think of a word that rhymes with the heart word?


Encourage students to think aloud and brainstorm with each other to answer these questions and get to know their heart words better!


2.     Heart Word Flashcards


Move over, store-bought flashcards! Students can create their own colorful flashcards and put a heart around or under the heart letters in each word. Students will learn more about each word by creating their own flashcards - and they’ll end up with a homemade resource to continue practicing their heart words.


3.     Air Writing


If students are struggling to look away from their flashcards, encourage them to snap a mental photograph of a heart word, then cover it up and write it in the air with their finger. This simple activity helps students exercise their writing muscles and encourages long-term memorization of heart words.

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Heart word mapping helps students visualize and memorize those pesky irregular words. Create a list of heart words, get out your pens and paper, and prepare yourself for some heart word magic.




  • Heart words are phonetically irregular words that occur frequently in text and spoken language.
  • Heart word mapping can help students read sight words and high-frequency words more fluently.
  • After students learn how to create heart word maps, educators can lead them through a variety of related activities, including:
    • Heart Word Hot Seat
    • Heart Word Flashcards

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