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High-interest words

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Last updated 24 January 2013 13:57 by NZTecAdmin
High-interest words (PDF, 41 KB)

High-interest words include words that are personally significant (such as names, addresses) and words that are of high utility (such as numbers, prices and words related to everyday needs or actions) for learners. These words are often recognised on sight by the learners for whom they are significant or important for everyday life.

Background information

Although the pathways into reading are similar for learners at whatever age they start, it appears that, in some respects, adults who are learning to read develop their skills in different ways from children. Adults with limited reading depend far more on sight recognition1 of words and phrases as units than do children, who tend to rely more on phonological knowledge and decoding skills.2 Adults bring world knowledge and experience to literacy development (see Appendix A on the principles of adult learning), and those with limited reading skills may have many years’ experience of relying on sight recognition to function in society. Research further suggests that those with a lower level of sight recognition have poorer comprehension levels overall.3

Adult literacy learners therefore need to develop both sight recognition and phonological awareness. Starting with personally significant words provides relevance to the learning and builds on skills and knowledge the learner has already begun to develop.

Knowing the demands

Recognising words automatically in written English is a key skill in literacy development. For adults, literacy skills must relate directly to their personal needs. Selecting and focusing on essential words as a learning/teaching strategy will build motivation to develop further skills.

Personally significant words

As they begin to develop literacy expertise, most adults will be able to recognise a few personally significant words and symbols. Examples include their own name and address, their children’s names, and words associated with the places they visit and the activities they engage in. Many of these words will be specific to individual learners.

High-utility words

The day-to-day literacy needs of adults begin with the need to read and write words and symbols that are personally essential to them: these are high utility words. For example, a person may need to recognise numbers and prices, ATM instructions, their home destination and departure times in a bus timetable, and the words or signs that help with finding a place. Many of these words will be common to a group of learners but some will relate to specific learners and situations.

The ability to recognise even a few words automatically gives the learner a point from which to increase the number of words they know. It also helps with the development of phonological awareness.

Knowing the learner

Because each learner will have a unique set of words that are personally significant or useful to them, assessment must be individualised. Some suggested assessment activities include:

  • asking the learner to tell you about words they need to read (you may need to prompt with examples)
  • writing these words as the learner tells you (use lower case printing or, better still, wordprocess them)
  • checking – ask the learner to read the words aloud
  • discussing the significance and use of the words with them
  • using flashcards or charts of these words to check which words the learner can recognise on sight, and
  • using a wider set of words that are relevant to the learner, reading them aloud. Ask the learner to select (or select them yourself) words they need to know.

Knowing what to do

Make decisions based on the individual learner’s interests and needs. The following suggestions can be adapted and used for whatever words the learner needs or wants to know.

  • Discuss important reading and writing needs with the learner; identify themes and words that you could use for instruction.
  • Help the learner build their own collection of flashcards of personally significant and useful words and symbols, including practical items such as prices, and ATM instructions (write them for the learner if they are unable to write independently).
  • Ask the learner to read aloud the flashcards they recognise and aim to gradually increase the number of words by a target you set with the learner.
  • Get the learner to match flashcards of words they do not recognise and their corresponding word shapes for example, Enter PIN and

    Image of 'Enter Pin'.

  • Point out similarities between words on the flashcards – similar words, letters, spelling patterns.
  • Play word games to reinforce learning such as Bingo, Memory, Snap and similar games that use the words identified for instruction. Ask the learner to identify more of the words they need to recognise as they build their sight vocabulary and add these to the flashcard collection.
  • Get the learner to sort the flashcards into groups that relate to family, work, banking or other appropriate categories. (This activity could also build reading strategies, such as by sorting into words that begin with the same letter of the alphabet, or that contain the same vowel sounds or consonant blends.)
  • Help the learner to develop a personal dictionary or collection of words they know.
  • Make language experience books with the learner (see here).
  • Use a shared writing approach with a group of learners who have similar needs (see here).
  • A powerful way of using personally significant words for developing literacy (which has been supported by extensive practice) is the ‘generative words’ approach (see here), in which key words are selected from contexts that are personally meaningful and that provide opportunities for the learner to build vocabulary and decoding skills.

Case study

Mei Ling has recently arrived in New Zealand from China. Last year, her husband died and she moved to live with her son and his young family. She is literate in Chinese but only has very basic conversation skills in English. She has never learnt the English alphabet, and is a beginning reader and writer and an English language learner. She wants to be able to read street names in her neighbourhood and prices in shops and to help her grandchildren with their homework.

Teaching suggestions for Mei Ling

  • Focus on the most important words that she needs, related to her grandchildren (for example, words she will need to recognise in school newsletters, reports, children’s books).
  • Focus on important street names and, if possible, have her children take her on a walk where she can match cards with street names against the actual street signposts.
  • Use advertising flyers (for example, catalogues from Farmers, The Warehouse and Briscoes) for prices as well as words.
  • Help her to make a collection of flashcards for the words she is learning. Each session, she can sort them into words she recognises immediately, words she is learning, and words she does not yet know. Chart the changing numbers in each category.

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1 Words that are recognised ‘on sight’ (without pausing to decode) are known as sight words.

2 Greenberg, 1997, cited in Durgunoglu and Onëy, 2002.

3 Perin, 1988 and Curtis, 1980, cited in Durgunoglu and Onëy, 2002.


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