Are ‘tricky’ words and high-frequency words the same?

These days we hear a lot about ‘tricky words’ or phonically ‘irregular’ words, ‘sight words’ and high-frequency words. Do all these terms mean the same thing?

High frequency words are simple common words. Words like ‘had’ or ‘the’. They are essential words as they are needed to make up even the simplest of sentences and the beginner reader will soon come across them when learning to read. Schools use lists of high-frequency words. They are lists of the first 100 most common words then the next 100 most common words after that etc.

Some of these words are decodable – which means that you could read them once you have learned the sounds of the letters of the alphabet. Take ‘big’ for example. A child learning to read would soon be able to decode that word.

The problem is that many of these really useful words have complex spellings. Take the word ‘said’. This word has an spelling for the sound ‘e’. These words have been called ‘sight’ words in the past as beginner readers would not be able to sound them out and they were taught to remember them by sight. They are also called ‘tricky’ or phonically ‘irregular’. But these terms are a bit misleading as there is nothing irregular about the word ‘say’, for example. Once you have learned ‘ay’ the word ‘say’ becomes phonically decodable or regular. So calling them ‘irregular’ is temporary and therefore confusing – as each reader will convert them into phonically ‘regular’ once they can decode them!


  1. Thanks. There is often a lot a confusion about the terms ‘high-frequency words’, ‘tricky-words’ and now we have a new one – ‘common exception words’ (as if we didn’t have enough confusing terms!). This new one means ‘tricky words’ – common words with complex spellings.

  2. Thanks for this elaborate explanation about the two terminologies. I’ve also liked your analysis on the phonically irregular words. Truly, not all are phonically irregular when it involves diphthongs one has already learned! I think this sorts the confusion.

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