Tricky Words: The Definitive Guide

Tricky Words

Tricky Words: The Definitive Guide

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How many times have you heard your child or your child’s teacher mention ‘tricky words‘, but aren’t entirely sure what they are?  It’s not rocket science to figure out that they are words which your child might struggle with, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

Children are taught to read words by saying a sound for each letter or groups of letters. So the word ‘cat’ can be split up into the sounds c – a – t and then merged together to read ‘cat’, where each of these letters are pronounced exactly how they are taught in Phonics.  

But not all words can be sounded out like this because some letters or groups of letters have different pronunciations. Let’s have a look at the tricky word ‘was’.  The letter at the beginning should be sounded out as ‘w’ (pronounced ‘wwww’), which is the way you would expect it to sound. However, the last two letters of the word sound more like ‘oz’ than ‘as’, so this is known as the tricky part of the word, making the whole word a ‘tricky word’.

The English language is full of so many complicated spellings which can even catch grown ups out at times, so it must be an overwhelming time for your little one when they are only just beginning to read.  The best way you can help them is to make the process as simple and easy to understand as possible for them.

Whether you’re in need of reading challenges for your child who is working above national expectations for their age, or perhaps you are looking for a way to support your child who is finding reading a bit more difficult, it’s always handy to have an up to date knowledge of what is being taught in school so you can help your child at an appropriate level.  Depending on their age and more importantly, their ability, your child’s teacher will be able to tell you which ‘tricky words’ they need to work on at home.  Below is a rough guide to point you in the right direction.

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Nursery

At Nursery, your child will focus on lots of speaking and listening games to develop their oral language and communication skills.  So there aren’t any tricky words to learn at this stage, or any words for that matter, just lots of fun and active learning on sounds and letter recognition.

Foundation Stage

When your child starts school at 4 years old, they will begin their amazing reading journey by discovering what happens when letters go together to make words.  So without further ado, here is the first group of tricky words that they need to learn to read and spell:

I                  

the

to               

no

go               

into

 

When they have learnt them, move on to the next group of tricky words, gradually introducing one or two at a time:

he                  

she                  

we                  

me

be                  

was                

you               

they 

all                

are                

my                 

her

 

Children are then expected to know the following tricky words by the end of Foundation Stage:

said               

have             

like               

so               

do                  

some            

come            

were                      

there            

little              

one              

when              

out                

what         

 

Year 1

oh                   

their               

people

Mr                  

Mrs                

looked

called            

asked            

could

 

Year 2

There aren’t any official ‘tricky words’ that your child will need to learn from Year 2 onwards.  Instead, they will be taught a vast range of spelling rules and ways of pronouncing sounds to give them the skills to segment and blend just about any word they come across.  What an exciting thought that is!

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How to Teach Tricky Words

To begin with, the best way to teach a new tricky word is to try to sound it out from the beginning, just like you would do any other word (this is known as ‘segmenting’). Some parts of the word can be pronounced exactly like the letter suggests, but other parts have to be said in a completely different way.

Let’s look at the word ‘go’ as an example. Your child needs to know that the bit they can sound out is ‘g’ and the tricky part of the word is ‘o’ (because it sounds more like ‘oa’ than ‘o’).  Don’t just assume that your child has to learn the word off by heart straight away, by exploring the structure of the word first will help them to remember how to read and write it correctly in the future.

One strategy that works really well is to sound out the word in two different ways, the right way and the wrong way (in other words, “g-oa” or “g-o”). Ask your child which version sounds better. I like to use a silly Alien puppet to do this in Phonics lessons with my Foundation Stage class.  The children really giggle when the puppet says it the wrong way and they love being able to help him read it correctly!

To throw a spanner in the works, some words don’t have any parts that can be sounded out at all.  This is where the whole word is just one big ‘tricky part’ and needs to be read as a whole sound, for example ‘all’ and ‘are’.  So I’m going to show you all the tricky words again, but this time in a bit more detail.

Orange = the part of the word your child can sound out.

Blue  = the ‘tricky part’ of the word with a different pronunciation (read as one sound)

I                  

the

to               

no

go               

into

 

 

 

 

he                  

she                 

we                  

me

be                  

was                

you               

they 

all                  

are                  

my                 

her

 

 

 

 

said             

have             

like               

so               

do                  

some            

come          

were                      

there            

little              

one             

when              

out                

what         

 

 

 

 

oh                   

their               

people

Mr                  

Mrs                

looked

called            

asked            

could

Think of lots of visual and exciting ways to help your child remember how to pronounce all the tricky parts of the words.  One idea that I absolutely love is to put the word on a big poster and make the tricky part stand out by decorating those letters with funky animal print paper, glitter or even glow in the dark paint.  For those children who learn better by exploring textures and tactile play, you could make the letters interesting for them to touch by sticking things on them like soft fur, bumpy pasta or fluffy feathers. The more imaginative and unusual, the more likely they are to remember how to pronounce it!

Try to encourage your child to start reading these words by sight as soon as they are able to sound them out correctly.  Not only will it boost their confidence when given a new challenge, but it will make their reading noticeable more fluent, which is the ultimate goal. Having a tricky word of the week is a good way to memorise them one at a time.  Write it on a little card and put it in somewhere in the house for them to see and read regularly… on your fridge, inside their wardrobe door or they could even use it as a bookmark.  You will quickly see the difference it makes to your child’s reading the next time they spot it in their reading book!

Last but not least, one of the best ways to skyrocket your child’s ability to memorise tricky words is to play games with a hidden educational twist.  There are so many brilliant ideas but a couple of my favourites are…

  • Hopscotch with a tricky word written in each square
  • Skittles with a tricky word stuck on each one (if you don’t have a set of skittles then empty plastic bottles work just as well)
  • A game of catch with water balloons (write a tricky word on each one with a marker pen – perfect for a hot summer’s day)

If you’ve got a creative idea of your own then write it in the comments box below.  I’d love to hear it!

Are you a teacher looking for new and exciting ways to engage the struggling readers in your class? Click the link below to find out how!

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2 thoughts on “Tricky Words: The Definitive Guide”

  1. Thank you for this very useful information on how to teach tricky words. I must admit I have struggled to sound these words out correctly when trying to help with reading! I have thought of a fun way to learn tricky words at bath time by making words out of foam letters and playing hide and seek with them amongst the bubbles!

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Hannah Angrave

Hannah Angrave | Founder of Wriggly Readers, learning through play enthusiast and on a mission to make reading fun for 1 million children!

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