La Dolch List Vita: Achieving the Good Life with Words

  • 01 September, 2014

Teacher question:

I was looking through your site hoping you would have information on the purpose and use of the Dolch word lists. I often see teachers spending time assessing students on their ability to read the lists.  Often, this information is placed on the report card and does not drive teacher instruction. I'm really looking for guidance on the true purpose of the Dolch lists, and wondering if students need to be tested on these words each trimester. Reading Street is our core program and has the high-frequency words embedded into the direct instruction with opportunities to check for mastery and provide feedback. Basically, do we need to test students on the grade level Dolch word lists three times per year?
Shanahan response:
Edward Dolch was a professor at Illinois State University. He developed his eponymously named list in the 1930s (what do you think, he was going to name it after me?). It was a pretty clever idea. He went through the basal readers of the time (preprimers through third grade) and identified the words that were used over and over, excluding the nouns. 
Some of the words that he listed were phonically irregular (or rare) such as the and of. Others were decodable (e.g., be, came, did). But all of them were frequently used words in the schoolbooks of eighty years ago.
One thing that readers need to be able to do is recognize high frequency words on sight (hence, “sight vocabulary”). That just means that when a student sees a word, he or she can name it so quickly it seems like there must have been no thought or analysis (like seeing your best friend’s face and instantly recalling his or her name). 
Initially, because beginners don’t yet have a well-honed understanding of words, brute force memorization can be helpful. As they progress, it gets easier to remember words (actually kids are less “remembering” them than analyzing them faster and faster), so such memorization becomes less useful.
Is it really a good idea to memorize words like that? The quick answer is yes, indeed. Remember, these words are going to come up a lot and so recognizing them easily and analyzing them faster than other words would be useful. Of course, the exceptional words that don’t follow common decoding patterns are going to have to be learned somehow, so memorization makes particular sense for them. And, the words that do follow the patterns become part of the basis that children use to figure out new words. 
Of course, reading instruction and basal readers (um, core reading programs) have changed a bit over the past 80 years. Most children are being taught to read earlier than before and the curriculum moves a faster, too, than it did then. Frankly, I think there are better word lists to work with these days. You could make up one based on the program that you are using, but there is so much overlap among most of the lists that it isn’t a big issue (including if you decide to stay with Dolch).
My favorite is the list that Ed Fry put together based on a review of a 5-million word sample of English text. This list overlaps a lot with Dolch, but there are some differences (we don’t shall so much any more). Fry List
I believe that most first-graders should be able to master the first 100 words (which is even easier if they know 10-25 of these from kindergarten), and that by the end of grade two, kids should know the first 300. (Knowing them means that I can flash a word to the child and he or she can read it within 2 seconds). In a program that is requiring kids to read daily within instruction and that is teaching phonics well, that is a surprisingly easy goal to accomplish with most kids. (Remember these aren’t the only words students should learn—a first-grader should be able to read 400-500 words, mostly through their decoding skills) 
In one suburban school I know, the principal took this idea to heart and she encouraged both teachers and parents to help with the word work. When she started the average first grader in her school could read 17 of these words by Thanksgiving; the next year, the average had climbed to about 75. 
That’s terrific, but it is only one of many things students must accomplish. This kind of direct word drill and memorization should probably take only about 5 minutes or so of class time each day (of the 120 minutes of reading instruction that I would recommend). I don't believe they need to be tested on them three times per year.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Robby B. Jun 15, 2017 11:34 AM


Interesting read. Thanks for this.

I'm not so sure I agree with having novice readers memorize word lists. Certainly students eventually need to have those lists memorized, and I think the idea of "brute-force" memorization may be the wrong approach.

I wonder how similar it is to the idea of memorizing math facts. Most agree that we eventually need to have math facts memorized--quick calculations and number fluency depend on it. And it seems the new approach to doing that is to move away from endless "mad minutes," and focus on developing the fundamental understanding of why 2x2=4. Repeated practice with numbers, in a variety of ways, leads to automaticity, when students recognize that 2x2=4 without thinking.

Translated to reading: I'd spend more time teaching students the fundamentals of how sounds blend together to form words. Repeated practice with that should lead to automaticity, no? Then, once they establish a sound understanding of the regular phonics rules, I'd teach the exceptions. Maybe even memorize those "irregular" words.

I'd worry that putting the memorization before the fundamental understanding would lead to unintended consequences. Thoughts?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 15, 2017 11:34 AM



No one has ever found any negative consequences to teaching students to read particular words, and everyone agrees that you have to teach those words that do not follow letter-sound correspondence conventions. There is only one word in the English language ("of") in which the "f" is associated with the /v/ sound. You could teach that as a pattern, of course, some old programs used to, but I guarantee it will take 5-year-olds longer to learn that "rule" (in a two-letter word if the first letter is "o" and the second letter is "f" the "f" makes a /v/ sound).

What kids are learning when they are taught phonics is how to recognize all words as if they are sight vocabulary. You can wait a full year until that system is fully in place before kids can read (as the older phonics programs used to recommend), but there is absolutely no research support for that. By teaching some words early through memorization, you make it possible for kids to read while they are learning to read. Kids also usually enjoy it (it gives them a sense of accomplishment), and research reviews of such procedures (I'm thinking of one by David Chard) support the explicit teaching of sight vocabulary.

You are correct that some kids will get enough repetition in their reading alone to secure that information, but most will not early on because they don't have the tools to learn the words. Finally, no one has ever been able to figure out whether readers decode words through the knowledge of an abstract set of rules or patterns or whether they work from memories of the structures of known words. Thus, giving students both the patterns and a base of words in memory increases their chances of getting it.

AB Jun 15, 2017 11:35 AM


Great Post! :)

Dr. Shanahan I love how you said, "By teaching some words early through memorization, you make it possible for kids to read while they are learning to read". I think that is so powerful because students need to feel successful when reading especially in the early grades to foster a love of literacy. Thanks!

Robby B. Jun 15, 2017 11:35 AM


1. Thanks for taking the time to respond. I read this blog primarily because you're so interactive with your readers.
2. "No one has ever found any negative consequences..." Has anyone looked? If so, where's the research? I'd imagine it'd be hard to conduct a controlled study on that topic. I'd say that I've anecdotally seen the negative consequences of "brute-force" memorization. We used to have our K students memorize up to 200 sight words along with some basic phonics lessons. A few years later, less than 20% of those students are proficient oral readers.
3. I'd agree they should memorize "of." But only after they know that this symbol "f" almost always makes the unvoiced "fff" sound.
4. I can't find the research by Chard, and I did read an article by him on It says, "It is critical that the important goal of developing a large fund of sight words not be confused with the outdated, discredited sight approach to teaching words in which beginning readers were instructed to learn words as "wholes" without reference to letter-sound associations and spelling patterns. Instead, research shows that instruction can best be done through 1) helping children to examine the spellings of words, thinking about how the spellings symbolize sounds, and then blending the sounds, and 2) engaging them in reading texts in which they have opportunities to reinforce their developing sight vocabulary and apply word recognition strategies to unfamiliar words, which become part of their sight vocabularies." That does not seem to suggest that "brute force" memorization is the right approach.
5. Can you point me in the direction of the research that supports your claims that using the Dolch list and/or Fry list lead to stronger readers?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 15, 2017 11:36 AM


Robby B.--

No, I know of no study that has set out to identify side effects from sight word teaching. But, I also know of no such studies on the teaching of phonics, so perhaps we shouldn’t teach that either. Teachers have often told me of bad effects of phonics instruction on students, but I have rejected those claims as being without data. Inconsistent use of research evidence in this manner is revealing of biases and prejudice. If you claim to believe in the use of research data as the basis of instructional practice, then you have to respect those findings even when they don't match your beliefs (that is the real benefit of research data).

There is absolutely NO evidence suggesting that one needs to memorize “of” AFTER they know they “f” sound and none of the major researchers on phonics have made this silly claim.

You are correct about what Chard says about the relationship between sight vocabulary and phonics. It is the same thing that my blog entry was saying and both of us were basing that on the work of Linnea Ehri (1995), one of those major phonics researchers—in fact, by far the most pre-eminent. Chard’s point (and my point) is that phonics knowledge enables students to learn sight words more quickly and to respond to words as if they are sight words.

Yes, there is a body of research showing the importance and value of sight word knowledge (Stuart, et al, 2000; Ehri, 1995; Seymour & Elder, 1986) and a body of research showing that repetition and memorization lead to improved knowledge of sight vocabulary (Belfiore, 1995; Oakland, et al, 1998; Scott, 1991). Perhaps most useful is the Browder & Xin (1998) meta-analysis of sight word research.

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La Dolch List Vita: Achieving the Good Life with Words


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