The Heart Method: An Effective Strategy for Teaching Irregularly Spelled Words

by Shanna Bradfield

Did you know that many of the high-frequency words that we typically teach students to memorize actually follow regular phonetic patterns? Some examples include the words can, he, came, no, and play. Typically, these high-frequency words are taught as “sight words” and are not included in phonics lessons but they could be! Supporting students in their use of letter/sound correspondences, syllable types, and spelling rules gives them opportunities to integrate and practice these skills while reducing rote memorization of each word’s visual letter string.

But you may ask, what happens when a student comes to a word like his? You may think a word such as his is a word that should be memorized or learned by heart. Heart words are words that have irregular spelling patterns. But look closely, are there phonetically regular parts to the word his that could reduce the memory load students need to take on? This is where the “heart method” comes in as an effective strategy for teaching irregular words. Using the example of his, the sounds /h/ and /i/ are regular, but the letter s says /z/ at the end of the word rather than /s/. When using the heart method to teach students an irregularly spelled word the teacher would draw students attention to the regular parts that do not need memorized (in this case the h and i) and call attention to the s that must be memorized. Here the teacher would draw a heart over the s in the word, visually marking the letter the student must “learn by heart” to read and spell his (see image below). This is the only part of the word a student needs to learn by heart!

Irregularly spelled words or heart words require a lot of practice and not just memorization. Teaching students to use their phonics skills for the regular parts of a word and the heart method to support what is irregular and must be remembered “by heart” will help students in developing the accuracy and automaticity they need to become good readers and spellers.

Do you want to know more about the heart method? See the resource below which shares some suggestions around this new model for teaching high-frequency words.

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