What is a ‘tricky word’?

Fluent readers may find it difficult to understand why beginner readers find some words difficult to decode. These are often called ‘tricky words’ – but what’s so tricky about them?The English phonic code is a complex one. (To see just how complex it is, you could take a look at the Phonic Code Tables here.) For this reason, we teach it in a step-by-step way, starting from the simple parts and gradually introducing the more-complex ones. Along the way, we teach children the 44 sounds in the English language and the corresponding spellings in our written script.

We start with the simple sounds of the alphabet and teach beginner readers to blend and segment words with a CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) word structure, such as ‘dog’. Later, we introduce more-complex spellings and word structures.

Once beginner readers start to read texts, even the simplest kind, they will encounter common words with complex spellings they have not yet learned. For example, in the word ‘was’, the ‘a’ sounds /o/ and the ‘s’ sounds /z/. Beginner readers may find it difficult to decode using the limited phonic knowledge they have learnt, so this is a ‘tricky word’. As the reader learns the phonic code and develops good decoding skills, more and more words are no longer ‘tricky’.

(Tricky words are sometimes called ‘key words’ or ‘phonically irregular high-frequency words’. They are now also called ‘common exception words’. They used to be called ‘sight words’, but this term is no longer used in synthetic phonics.)

How should we teach tricky words?

Most tricky words are part of the phonic code. Take the word ‘was’, for example. The spelling ‘a’ for the sound /o/ is common to many other words (e.g. ‘what’, ‘want’, ‘swan’, ‘swap’ etc.). The sound /z/for the letter ‘s’ is also common (e.g. ‘is’, ‘his’, ‘has’ etc.).

A few common words, such as ‘one’ and ‘friend’, have unusual spellings that do not fit comfortably within the phonic code. It is now recommended that all words, including those with unusual spellings, should be taught by matching the sounds with their corresponding spellings.

For any tricky word, teachers should ask readers to sound the parts of the word that they know (e.g. ‘w’ in the word ‘was’). They should then point to the spelling or spellings the pupil has not yet learnt (e.g. ‘a’ and ‘s’) and say the sounds they represent. The reader can then blend all the sounds into the word. This way, the habit of sounding out words is maintained. Readers learn to read a growing range of words while developing their understanding of the phonic code.

What about learning to read tricky words by sight?

It is important not to resort to learning these words by sight (by shape), as educators have recommended in the past, because this encourages children to guess when tackling new words. Guessing conflicts with the strategy of sounding out words, which is the most successful and reliable way to decode new words.

Reading a word using visual memory can work only when the reader already knows the word and can remember it accurately. This strategy does not help the reader to figure out what a new word might be.

When does a tricky word stop being a tricky?

Once readers have enough knowledge of the phonic code to read that word, and once they can read it automatically, the word is no longer tricky.

Phonic Books publishes decodable books that introduce tricky words gradually. You can see the range of books here.


  1. (To see just how complex it is, click on ‘teaching tools’ on our website and then on ‘English Phonic Code’ and download a free copy of the phonic code)

    Sorry, I cannot find ‘teaching tools’’, for the ”on our website”, does it mean this page?

    Thank you.

  2. In your books ‘right’ is termed as a tricky word yet it is also included in the blending ‘igh’ words. Similar is the case with ‘my’ and several other words. In this case, the words are tricky (that is the one which cannot be blended) or should be considered as the one which can be blended? because U r placing some words in both categories which is confusing for students.

    1. Hi,
      Thank you for your comment.
      All words can be blended as the term ‘blending’ means pushing sounds together into words. All words are made up of sounds that we blend together to pronounce.
      The word ‘right’ may be called a ‘tricky word’ (or a high-frequency word with a complex spelling) because it is a common word with a spelling the child may not have been taught yet (igh). This does not mean it cannot be blended. It can. It has three sounds /r/ /igh/ /t/ and these are blended into the word ‘right’ when pushed together.
      In our books, we list any words with spellings that a child has not learned yet according to the progression followed in the reading series. So, if the child has not learned the spelling ‘igh’, any words with that spelling can be considered ‘tricky’ because they may be difficult for the child to read. The spelling of the sound /ie/ is presented in a number of books. In those books the words will include words with the /ie/ spellings. Once the child has learned the spelling ‘igh’, it is no longer difficult or tricky and therefore no longer a tricky word. For beginner readers, all words start out being tricky and as they learn to read they are no longer tricky. You and I are reading words that we don’t find tricky to read. The confusion lies in treating tricky and decodable words in different ways. While, in fact they are all decodable.
      Many people make the error of thinking that tricky words should be learned by sight. It is much more efficient for children learn to sound out these words as there are many words with the ‘igh’ spelling, so why not learn how to sound them all out instead of trying to remember them by their shape?

    1. Hi there, ‘one’ and ‘once’ are very awkward words. I would code them like this o-ne = /wu/ /n/ and o-n-ce = /wu/ /n/ /s/. The reason for this is that we do have some example of a letter spelling two sounds like the letter ‘u’ that spells /y/ and /oo/ in ‘pupil’. We have a chart for high-frequency words on our website. Here is the link https://www.phonicbooks.com/resources/phonic-high-frequency-word-chart/ It would also be interesting for students to look at the etymology of the word and how other European languages pronounce and spell the word ‘one’. I hope this helps.

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