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Unpacking The Science of Reading: Memory Words

Updated: Feb 20, 2023


What is the Science of Reading? How do we teaching memory words or heart words in a Science of Reading Classroom?

If you have been in an elementary classroom recently, you have likely heard about this new body of research called The Science of Reading or SoR. It is decades worth of research and analysis about just how the brain learns to read and it is changing the way teachers, schools, and even curriculum companies are designing reading instruction (you can check out an entire run down of SoR here).


SoR includes pretty compelling and significant evidence around the importance of direct phonics instruction that is taught in a systemic way. But that leaves educators, teachers, and parents wondering- where do memory words or sight words fit in? After all, not all words play by phonics rules. Today, we are going to break down, how do we teach kids to read those words that simply don't play by the rules?


What are memory words?

Before we can jump into how we are teaching memory words, lets talk about what exactly memory words are. Memory words are not new to to education, they have been around for quiet a while, they have just sported different names over the years. In a little more than a decade of teaching, they have been called memory words, heart words, popcorn words, Dolche words, high frequency words, sight words...the list goes on and on.


At the end of the day, memory words are this: words that phonetically do not follow the rules, so children have to commit them to memory instead of relying on decoding strategies to sound out the word.


BUT... instead of just memorizing all of the words that don't play by the rules, what if there is a way to empower students to use what they know about phonics to help map out these tricky words? Then they'd only have to memorize the part of the word that is tricky!


Memory Word Mapping

One way to utilize what SoR has taught us about direct phonics instruction to help students tackle these tricky memory words is through mapping memory words. To do this, students take the word they are learning, identify the parts of the words that play by the rules, then identify and mark the parts of the words that do not play by the rules. Then when they are working on these words in class or at home, they don't need to memorize the entire word, they just need to memorize the part of the word that is tricky.


Let's Map It Out

Let's look at the word said. As I introduce this word to my students, I would tell them the word, then we would spell the word together.


Next, we would go sound by sound and identify, is that letter making the expected sound in this word? The first letter is s, is the s in said making the expected /s/ sound? YES!

What is the Science of Reading? How do we teaching memory words or heart words in a Science of Reading Classroom?

Then we'd move to the next letters, ai, which are a vowel team. We know that when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking, but in the word said, we do not hear the ai making the long a sound...THIS is the part we have to mark with a heart. This is the part of the word that is not playing by the rules and we need remember this phoneme.

What is the Science of Reading? How do we teaching memory words or heart words in a Science of Reading Classroom?

Then we check the last sound in the word. In the word said, the d is making the /d/ sound, so we don't need to mark this sound.


Determining Memory Words

While there are some words, like the word said, where the phonemes clearly do not play by the rules and there is no pattern or rule for students to learn about when ai makes a short e sound- so it is is simply just always a memory word.


But there are also times when our young learners need to identify a word as a memory word because in the scope and sequence of intentional phonics instruction students have not yet learned the pattern of the word. However, students will need to be able to decode and read the word because of the frequency in which it appears in text. Examples of these words would be- like me, my, by, she, he, and we. These words all have a phonics pattern:

like- long i because of a magic e

me, she, he, we- long e because of the open syllable pattern

by and my- y acting like a long i in a 1 syllable word


BUT for an early reading first grader who has not had phonics instruction in long vowels yet, these words might need to be taught as memory words with tricky parts so the student can access text with these words.


I hope this helps give you an idea of how you can use memory word mapping to help support the students in your classroom with tricky words!


Need a list of memory words? Here is our list of memory and the heart parts for each word.

What is the Science of Reading? How do we teaching memory words or heart words in a Science of Reading Classroom?
What is the Science of Reading? How do we teaching memory words or heart words in a Science of Reading Classroom?

Check out our memory word heart cards in our TPT store!




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