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

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

High-frequency words are simple, common words, like ‘is’ 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. Schools use lists of high-frequency words: lists of the first 100 most-common words, and then the next 100 most-common words after that, etc.

Some of these words are easily decodable: they can be read once the principle or most-common sounds of letters have been learned. A child learning to read would soon be able to decode the word ‘big’, for example.

The problem is that many of these really useful words have complex spellings. The word ‘said’, for example, contains the spelling ‘ai’ for the sound /e/. The term ‘tricky’ is still widely used for words like these.

In the past, these words have been called ‘sight’ words, as beginner readers would not be able to sound them out and were taught to remember them by sight. They were not encouraged to link any letters to sounds they would immediately recognise.

They are sometimes also called phonically ‘irregular’.  However, ‘irregular’ is a bit misleading: although it may not be decodable early on, there is nothing irregular about the word ‘say’, for example. Once you have learned ‘ay’, the word ‘say’ becomes phonically decodable: it is ‘regular’. Calling words like these ‘irregular’ is temporary and therefore confusing.


  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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