What is a ‘tricky word’?

Fluent readers may find it difficult to understand why beginner readers find some words difficult to decode. Take the word ‘was’:  It is a ‘tricky word’.  What is so tricky about it?click here to read more

The English phonic code is a complex one.  (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).  For this reason we teach it in a step-by-step way, starting from the simple part and gradually introducing the more complex parts.  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, e.g. ‘dog’.  Later, we introduce more complex spellings and word structures.

Once beginner readers begin to read a text, 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 learned.  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’.

A few common words e.g. ‘one’ or ‘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 in words with their corresponding spellings.

When reading any ‘tricky word’, the teacher  should ask the reader to sound the parts of the word that they know e.g. ‘w’ in the word ‘was’ and then point to the spelling the pupil has not yet learned e.g. ‘a’ and ‘s’.  The teacher should say the sound for the new spellings.  The reader can then blend all the sounds into the word.  This way, the habit of sounding out words is maintained as the reader learns to read a growing range words while developing his/her 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, as 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.  In fact – there is no alternative strategy.

Reading a word using visual memory (sight) can only work when the reader already knows the word and the brain 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 word’?  

Once the reader has enough knowledge of the code to read that word and once the reader can read it automatically, the word is no longer a ‘tricky word’.

Phonicbooks publish decodable books which introduce ‘tricky words’ gradually.  To see the range of books visit: https://www.phonicbooks.co.uk/completerange.php


  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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