10 Questions about K12 Spelling Words

We answered ten common questions about K12 spelling words here, such as the vocabulary size, relationships with sight words and academic words, sources of them, and main references.
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 By Jiabao Hors
Quick view by section topics:
OverviewK12 Vocabulary SizeActive and PassiveSpelling WordsSight or SpellingAcademic or SpellingElementary SchoolMiddle SchoolHigh SchoolReference
1   Overview
Spelling is one of the cores of language arts education. Students in K12 schools, from kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, to high school, usually spend lots of time building their spelling vocabulary. Here we are trying to clarify some concepts related to spelling words and answer some common questions about the spelling words resources hosted on the website.

The ten questions are in two parts. The former is for generic concerns, such as spelling words, why students need to build them intentionally, and what is a reasonable size for students in different stages.

The latter is related to the spelling words resources on the website. We host spelling words separately by elementary, middle, and high schools. We give concise answers about why and how we choose words for different grades and stages and suggestions about leveraging these resources to up spelling skills.

Last but not least, we list the main references. Many teachers and parents query very frequently where the words to choose. We fully understand this and similar concerns. Hopefully, our answer addresses not only the doubt but also a clue to further enhancement.

2   How many words K12 students know?
It should be the first question when anyone starts to consider building spelling words. For either kindergarten or 12th grade students, the answer probably surprises you. The average numbers are as follow:

Kindergarten: 5,000

12th grade: 20,000

This chart exposes the total words that a native person knows.

K12 Vocabulary Size

Both US and UK researchers get similar results. If what you or your kids know is less than the average, you should take the issue seriously. However, you need to understand the difference between "knowing" and "active using" before taking any actions.

3   What are active and passive vocabularies?
We know some words, doesn't mean we use them or we can use them in communications. For native English speakers, there exists an active and passive vocabulary.

An active vocabulary consists of the words we use when speaking or writing, namely to express to others. A passive vocabulary works for reading and listening; it refers to words we've assimilated but have not been able to use.

In general, the average active vocabulary of an adult English speaker is around 20,000 words. It's a subset of passive vocabulary, which is around 40,000 words. For K12 students, the following table shows per stages.

GradeCEFR LevelActive WordsPassive Words
Grade 1-2A1300600
Grade 3-4A26001,200
Grade 6B11,2002,500
Grade 8B22,5005,000
Grade 10C15,00010,000
Grade 12C210,00020,000

If you want to be a good writer or speaker, active vocabulary is the fundamental asset, and spelling skills are the basis of writing.

4   What are spelling words?
Spelling words are for writing and part of the active vocabulary for writing. How many words do we need to write?

There are some statistics for high and low use cases. At first, let's see how about the professionals.
  • Shakespeare used around 30,000 words in all his works
  • Times used around 20,000 words in 20 years.
If you don't plan to write like Shakespeare or write all papers for Times or a similar in future decades, you don't need such a colossal spelling vocabulary.

On the other hand, we also know in everyday writing:
  • The first 25 words take 33% contents
  • The first 100 words take 50% contents
  • The first 1,000 words take 89% contents
It means that if you have 1000 spelling words, you can handle most of the daily writing communications.

For k12 students, what is the goal, 1,000 or 20,000? If we aim to get high academic standards, students in 12th-grade should be able to spell out half of the active vocabulary; it's around 5,000.

The language learning curve isn't linear or in even proportion. In lower grades, students accumulate huge vocabulary, either active or passive, then study to spell some of them in higher grades. Below is a recommendation to build spelling words by grades.

StageUp to GradeSpelling WordsExample
Middle8th1,2006th Grade
High12th2,0009th Grade

5   Difference between sight and spelling words?
Sight words are very high-frequency words, which are commonly memorized as a whole by sight so that children can instinctively recognize these words, without having to use any strategies to decode them.

The famous Fry Sight Words has around 1000 essential words. The Dolch Sight Words is simpler, less than 300 words. We work out 1200 words by frequency as elementary sight words, covering Fry and Dolch, and assign them from kindergarten to 3rd grade. 

A sight word must be a spelling word for elementary school students, but they deal with them by different efforts in different grades. For example, if following our elementary school section, a student can learn "music" as a spelling word in 2nd grade and master it as a sight word until 4th grade. It means a 4th-grade student should use "music" without any hesitation.

The usual procedure a student learns a word is as follows.

  1. Passive word: can understand in talking
  2. Active word: can speak in the right way
  3. Passive word: can know in writing
  4. Active word: can write in the right way (Spelling words)
  5. Sight word: read and write instantly
It shows a sight word must be a spelling word, but the reverse possibly isn't true.

Dolch sight words, Fry sight words, and elementary sight words (by Examword), which one is the right option to work? Not be confused by their names; the real words in them overlap heavily, which every child has to learn sooner or later. The question is when to get them. We suggest mastering the first 1200 words as sight words before the 4th grade for elementary school students. It's a middle-level criterion. A lower level is to finish all Fry sight words before the end of 5th grade.  As for spelling words and sight words study in elementary school (before 6th grade), we can summarize them as follows.

  1. At least master 1800 spelling words, Dolch and Fry sight words are the first 1000 words of them;
  2. Nice to have the first 1200 words as sight words before 4th grade;
  3. If you cannot get (2) done, you should master 1000 words as sight words, namely all Fry words, before 6th grade.
6   Difference between academic and spelling words?
In elementary, middle, and high school sections, you may see lists for academic words. Please don't confuse them with spelling words.

Academic words are for students to complete all courses, like math, science, social study, and language arts. They can be either active words or passive words. Only in works or tests, a small part needs you to write.

Therefore, we may summarize the difference between them.
  • Academic words are from the courses or subject's contents;
  • Spelling words are mainly decided by a word's frequency;
  • At a particular grade, academic words are more challenging than spelling words;
  • Academic words possibly become spelling words in higher grade;
7   What are Sight/Spelling words in Elementary School?
In the elementary school section, including kindergarten and 1st to 5th grades, we select 1,800 words as sight/spelling words. Each year has 300 words. These words are organized by frequency and include all Dolch and Fry sight words.

We present these words in 3 ways:

Kindergarten and 1st grade All words are by frequency. Because they are the first 600 ones, we don't show explanations; instead, we give some short example sentences or phrases.

2nd and 3rd grade All words are by frequency. Since 2nd grade, we start to show one or two explanations for each word.

4th and 5th grade Each grade has 300 spelling words. Between grades, we put words by frequency; however, inside one grade, these words are alphabetical.

These 1,800 words are selected by frequency. After finishing 3rd grade's words, a total of 1,200 words, students can cover 90% everyday writing.

Our research suggests children take the first 1200 words as sight words and get them before 4th grade if possible.

(Details see Section 5: Difference between sight and spelling words)

Below are quick accesses for the elementary sight/spelling words by grades.

GradeSight/Spelling WordsView
1st Grade3001st Grade
2nd Grade3002nd Grade
3rd Grade3003rd Grade
4th Grade3004th Grade
5th Grade3005th Grade

8   What are Spelling words in Middle School?
In the middle school section, including 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, we select 1,200 words as spelling words. Each year has 400 words. These words are mainly organized by frequency; meanwhile, we also consider some words used in the middle school's academic classes heavily.

Among grades, we put words by frequency; however, inside one grade, these words are alphabetical. Like spelling words in elementary school, each word is with one or two explanations.

Since middle school, we add example sentences for some words. These sentences are chosen from classic works. However, the meaning in examples may not match the explanations offered in the spelling list.

Below are quick accesses for the middle spelling words by grades.

GradeSpelling WordsView
6th Grade4006th Grade
7th Grade4007th Grade
8th Grade4008th Grade

9   What are Spelling words in High School?
In the high school section, including 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, we select 2,000 words as spelling words. Each year has 500 words. These words are not only by frequency but also by the requirements of high school academic subjects.

As we know, 12th-grade students should have 20,000 passive words and 10,000 active words. If we choose spelling words precisely by frequency, then all 5,000-10,000 words will be excluded. It doesn't meet the real situation.

The 3,000 words of elementary and middle are almost the first 3,000 words by frequency. But the 2,000 high school spelling words are from 3,000 to 10,000, which we select from materials of some school districts and training organizations.

Among grades, we still put the 2000 words by frequency; however, in a grade, these words are in alphabetical. Like in middle school, each word is with one or two explanations; some have example sentences. We choose them from classic works. However, the meaning in examples may not match the explanations offered in the spelling list.

Below are quick accesses for the high spelling words by grades.

GradeSpelling WordsView
9th Grade5009th Grade
10th Grade50010th Grade
11th Grade50011th Grade
12th Grade50012th Grade

10   Where to get these spelling words?
We receive queries from parents and teachers about where we get these spelling words from time to time. The answer is a little complicated.

The spelling words of elementary and middle school are mainly by frequency. We put the Dolch and Fry sight words at the beginning and then add other high-frequency words. In the middle school part, we also considered some materials from school distributes.

The high school part is mainly by requirements of academic subjects, although we still use the frequency. We can only select 2,000 words, but potential active words are still over 7,000. So, we analyze and compute lots of available materials from school districts and training organizations, choose the common or overlapped ones from separate sources, and then order them by frequency again.

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