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What are Heart Words?

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The majority of English words are phonetically regular. YAY! However, many of the irregularities we see are in some of the most frequently used words in English (ex: said, the, of).

So…What are heart words?

Heart words are words we see A LOT and some parts either do not follow the rules OR have a spelling pattern students have not learned yet. These are the parts we need to know by heart. 

Your child’s school may reference these as Red Words, Sight Words, or High-Frequency Words.

WHY heart words?

English isn’t a visual language. To actually be able to decode (read) unknown words, children need to understand the rules and patterns of the English language! You may have heard that most of the words in English just don’t make sense, so you just have to memorize the way they are spelled (sight/red words). That is not entirely true! Roughly 84% of English words are phonetic, which means that they follow predictable spelling patterns! 

The heart word method has learners focus on how sounds and letters work, instead of memorizing a list of sight words. When we teach children this method, they are no longer expected to just memorize words, which a lot of students struggle with.

Commonly, parents get confused when their child struggles with a word that they have read many times! By paying attention to the parts of the word that do make sense, we let learners know that English is a language with rules that help them learn to read! The fancy definition of this technique is called orthographic mapping. 

How do I teach them?

I focus on what parts of a word do work, before moving on to the parts of a word that don’t make sense OR a learner has not practiced yet.

  1. Count the sounds in the word 
    • ex: said has 3 sounds s/ai/d
  2. Figure out what sounds make sense! 
    • said has 2 sounds that make sense
    • s says /s/ and d says /d/ 
  3. Figure out what sounds don’t make sense and draw a heart under those sounds
    • ai says /eh/ in said
    • This is the part we have to learn by HEART

How to help?

No more memorizing a stack of flashcards or a list of words!

When reading a word that doesn’t make sense, point out the parts of the word that do make sense!  Then, identify the sounds of the letters that do not make sense or are spelling patterns your learner has not practiced yet (just like in the steps above).

Make it FUN!

Practicing Heart Words is CRUCIAL for students, as these are words they see and use constantly. However, there is no need for it to be boring!


  • Tic Tac Toe
  • Bingo
  • Memory
  • Hangman

Are you a teacher or homeschool parent?

Check out my Heart Word / Red Word Dictation Paper! 

  • These dictation papers can be used in conjunction with Orton-Gillingham red words or heart words.
  • Can easily be cut into sections and be used to trace on a plastic canvas. 
  • Options for dictated sentences
  • Can be used to create Heart Word Binders/folders for students to keep all of their words organized. 
  • The House Paper helps with letter formation and is color-coded.
  • Bingo and Tic Tac Toe Game Boards included!

Red Word / Heart Word Dictation Paper

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