The Phonics Blog

A commentary on issues and topics relating to the teaching of literacy. By the author of 'Phonics and the Resistance to Reading'


Misconceptions about so-called tricky words abound. For example the website of a Swindon primary school tells us: “Tricky words are words that cant (sic) be sounded out such as: the, to, no and go.” A Bristol primary school informs its parents: “Decodable words can be 'sounded out'. Tricky words need to be learnt by sight.” A South Gloucestershire primary says: “There are some words in the English language which you can't sound out (at school and in homework these are often know (sic) as the 'Tricky words'). For these words your child needs to use a variety of other skills, starting with 'sight reading' (learning to recognise the word as a whole instead of trying to break it down into its individual sounds).”

The confusion revealed in this small sample of examples is widespread. It seems that in a very large number of schools ‘tricky words’ are taught as words that cannot be decoded with phonics and which have to be learned by sight. The new National Curriculum for English refers repeatedly not to ‘tricky words’ but to ‘common exception words’ but it looks worryingly likely that this formulation will inherit all the misconceptions that have attached to ‘tricky words’. So the risk is that many teachers will continue to believe that these are words for which phonics ‘doesn’t work’ and which have to be learned by sight, as individual visual patterns.

Helpfully the revised National Curriculum does state clearly in the context of common exception words that “The understanding that the letter(s) on the page represent the sounds in spoken words should underpin pupils' reading and spelling of all words.” This is a very important point: In our writing system letters of the alphabet are used to represent the sounds we hear in those words when they are spoken and the point of phonics teaching is to make this principle plain to children and to enable them to unlock the code so that they can turn the letters on the page into the sounds they are used to hearing in the words those letters represent.

Of course what makes our teaching of this more difficult is that English has a complex code. The same letter or letters can be used to represent different speech-sounds – and the same speech sound can be represented by different letters. But despite the complexity there is a fundamental order to our sound-spelling system and good phonics teaching sets out to teach and explain this complexity in a carefully-ordered sequence – starting with an initial stage (typically covered in reception classes) that teaches only what is usually referred to as the simple code, followed by a further stage (intended to be covered in Y1) that deals with the complex code.

The aim from the beginning is, of course, to teach sound-spelling relationships in a way that makes them immediately useful – in other words the intention is that children should be able to apply their developing knowledge to a rapidly growing stock of words. The grapheme-phoneme correspondences are not being taught in isolation to read just a specific word.

However there is a need for some additional phonics teaching focused on its application into specific words. These specific words are the common exception words.

Some words use the alphabetic code in a very idiosyncratic way – the way in which the letters represent one or more of the sounds in those words is either more-or-less unique to that word or else is used in only a very small number of words. If these words were all rare or unusual words they could be dealt with later on as schooling progresses, but some of these words are very common and children will meet them frequently in their reading. So children need to be able to read these words and they are taught as ‘common exception words’.

These common exception words all use the alphabet to represent the sounds in those words, but the coding is uncommon or exceptional. So children need to be shown how the alphabetic code works in those words so that they can learn to decode them when they meet them in their reading. These words should not be taught as words to be learned as ‘wholes’, to be recognised as a single visual pattern or as words for which ‘phonics doesn’t work’. When children are being shown how the alphabetic code works in these common exception words they are being taught this new bit of code specifically to be able to read those particular words.

But as well as words with very rare grapheme-phoneme correspondences the category of tricky words also includes many words that use the sound spelling system in a way that is very common but is usually taught as part of the complex code in Year 1. Yet some of these ‘tricky words’ are very common and children will encounter them frequently even in quite simple texts. So those tricky high-frequency words have to be taught in Reception, in advance of the more general teaching of the relevant grapheme-phoneme correspondences in Year 1.

The same principle applies to the teaching of these words. Children should be taught how the sound-spelling system works in these words so that they can decode them when they meet them in their reading. These words are not to be taught as ‘sight words’, they are words that can be ‘sounded out’ just like any other words once children have been taught the additional phonic knowledge needed for these words. At this stage the phonic knowledge is being taught for word-specific application, but later on (probably in Year 1) they will encounter the same piece of phonic knowledge and see how it is used more widely in other words.

The widespread confusion amongst teachers about tricky words is actually a symptom of something else - a widespread lack of understanding of how the sound-spelling system works in English, including its complexities, and recognition of how a good phonics programme handles that complexity. The emphasis on phonics in the revised National Curriculum is greatly to be welcomed. It is the first time that the National Curriculum has so explicitly and definitively established phonics as the required approach to teaching reading. But its successful implementation will depend on teachers having the secure professional knowledge to understand the alphabetic code and how it works.

Mike Lloyd-Jones 27 February 2014