How to Teach Tricky Words


You learn to read, and write, tricky words through practice.
You learn to read, and write, tricky words through practice.
  In the end we all learn to read by memorising what words look like - we do this through practice and it's what lets us read as quickly as we do.

However before we do that, when we are learning, we use phonics to tell us what word says - i.e. we apply some rules that tell us how to pronounce a word.  You might say that we "decode" how to pronounce a word from it's graphemes (combinations of one or more letters making a sound) and the phonics rules we know.

Unfortunately, unlike some languages, English doesn't follow its pronunciation rules 100%.  You can't work out how to pronounce every word just from using the rules.  A good example of this is the word "me" which should be pronounce "meh" but is actually pronounce "mee".  This word is always a tricky word as it doesn't really follow the rules.

Tricky Words That Aren't Always Tricky

There is actually, also, another type of tricky word which starts as a tricky word but actually does follow some rules.  This is because the rules of pronunciation in English can get quite, well, tricky.  So rather than learn all the rules and then start reading, children learn some of the rules, start reading, and learn others as they go along.

So the tricky words can be separated by the phonics phases.  They are tricky if they don't follow a phonics word learnt yet.  A good example of this is "when".  Rather than teach the "wh" digraph (where the "h" is silent) it's better to teach the word "when" as a tricky word, at least initially.

What words are tricky?

Spelling isn't always this difficult.
Did you know that spelling isn't as big a deal in all languages?  This is because, unlike English, some languages have consistent rules for pronunciation of letters.  For example Spanish has no tricky words at all (unless you count "loan words" from another language which aren't really Spanish).  So in Spain they don't have as many spelling bees, or spelling competitions - and the ones they do have are to test children's spelling of English, which most learn as a second language!
So how do you know which words are tricky?  In the UK this has been decided by phase already for you.  It's best to follow these rules because they will be used in schools and other resources (like the books themselves).  Here they are:
Phase 1
No Tricky words - concentrate on blending / segmenting words (splitting words into different sounds).  Spelling doesn't matter at this point!
Phase 2 Tricky Words
Another way to think of these is as the Early Years  spelling words.  They are the common exception words children need to learn in Reception:
  • I
  • into
  • go
  • no
  • the
  • to
Phase 3 Tricky Words
Your child should also learn these common exception words in Reception, or if not in Year 1.  At the beginning of Year 1 they should be able to read all these words correctly, and early in Year 1 they should be able to spell them.  Early Year 1 spelling words / Phase 3 tricky words are:
  • all
  • are
  • be
  • he
  • her
  • me
  • my
  • she
  • they
  • was
  • we
  • you

How to Teach Tricky Words

Tricky words are, for me harder to learn than to teach!  This is because phonics with all its rules can become quite complicated for an adult.  On the other hand as long as you know already know how to pronounce / spell a tricky word, it's just a case of practising the word with the child.

Initial Teaching

To begin with, for the first tricky words I would suggest using flashcards.  Just tell your child - these are tricky words and you need to learn them.  Tell them how to say the word - don't let them try to guess, as it is confusing, since the word doesn't follow the rules.   Have them repeat the word, then move on to another word.  After that you can come back to the first word and check if they can still pronounce it.  This leaving a gap between teaching, and checking or repeating is a great way to help your child remember the tricky word.
Handling Tricky Words In The Wild
What if your child first sees a tricky word in a book or even out and about?  Probably by the time you've realized, they will have already mispronounced it!  Ideally if you can catch them first it would help, but it doesn't matter if not.  Just tell them "You pronounced it correctly according to the rules - well done, but this is a tricky word so we actually say it like this [say the word."  It's important that they don't mix up their phonics rules when learning tricky words, which is why tricky words have their own category.

Once they've mastered the tricky word on a flash card, they are ready for it in a book.  It might even come in a book first, this doesn't matter.  The first time they see it, you can remind them it is a tricky word, and they should know how to pronounce it.  If they don't know, then just tell them how it is pronounced.  After the first (few) time(s) don't even hint - they need to know it is a tricky word when they see it and just say it.

It also doesn't matter if a child learns a tricky word beyond their phase; the most important thing is they don't learn it incorrectly.  Don't let them get away with incorrect pronunciations because that will stick in their mind and be hard to undo.

So, learning Tricky Words is really just the simple memorising how to pronounce words which is really how a lot of adults learnt every word before phonics took off.


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