How to decode ‘tricky words’

The Synthetic Phonics approach to reading is to encourage beginner readers to sound out graphemes in a word and blend them together into a word. 

What to do when they encounter common words with ‘tricky’ graphemes they have not yet been taught?

Here is an explantion of how to teach ‘tricky words’ to beginner readers while staying faithful to blending strategies and not guessing or learning words by shape.

First – what are ‘tricky words’?

‘Tricky words’, also known as, ‘irregular high-frequency words’ and  ‘common exception words’ in the new National Curriculum, are common words that have complex spellings in them.  Beginner readers may find them difficult to read as they have not yet learned some of the graphemes (spellings) in those words.  For example: the word ‘say’ will, initially be problematic for the beginner reader because they may know the graphemes for the sound /s/ /a/ and /y/ but they may not yet have learned the grapheme ay for the sound /ae/.  When we talk about ‘tricky words’ we do not include the high-frequency words  such as ‘dad’, ‘got’ or ‘him’ as they don’t have any tricky bits in them.

We can’t avoid ‘tricky words’ as they appear in the simplest of sentences that beginner readers will encounter when learning to read and write English.

In Synthetic Phonics, the Phonic Code underpins our understanding and teaching of reading and spelling.   It is important to be consistent and to encourage children to identify graphemes and their sounds in words even when parts of the words are tricky.  This means we don’t teach the children to memorise words by their shape.  We still help them to break them down into graphemes.  Some of these graphemes they will already know.   Others, they will learn and know in time.

How do we teach ‘tricky words’?

It is now recommended that we teach ‘tricky words’ by encouraging the pupil to sound out the parts of the word they know and supplying them the parts they do not.  In the case of the word ‘say’ the teacher would ask the pupil to sound out the /s/ and would offer the new spelling ay.

In order to teach children to decode ‘tricky words’ in this way we need to be confident as to how we split them up into graphemes.

How to decode ‘tricky words’

Below is a list of tricky words from ‘Letters and Sounds’ which have been split up into graphemes.  They are grouped according to the Phase in which they are introduced:

Phase 2

a s  –  /a/ /z/

i s – /i/ /z/

o f – /o/ /v/

b a ck – /b/ /a/ /k/

h i s – /h/ /i/ /z/

th e – /th/(voiced) /e/ (schwa)

t o – /t/ /oo/

I – /ie/

n o – /n/ /oe/

g o – /g/ /oe/

Phase 3

th a t – /th (voiced)/ /a/ /t/

th i s – /th(voiced/ /i/ /s/

th e n – /th(voiced/ /e/ /n/

th e m – /th(voiced) /e/ /m/

w i th – /w/ /i/ /th(voiced)/

s ee – /s/ /ee/

f or – /f/ /or/

n ow – /n/ /ow/

d ow n – /d/ /ow/ /n/

l oo k – /l/ /oo (as in ‘good’/ /k/

t oo – /t/ /oo/

h e – /h/ /ee/

sh e – /sh/ /ee/

w e – /w/ /ee/

m e – /m/ /ee/

b e – /b/ /ee/

w a s – /w/ /o/ /z/

y ou – /y/ /oo/

th ey – /th(voiced)/ /ae/

a ll – /or/ /l/

are – /ar/

m y  – /m/ /ie/

h er – /h/ /er/

Phase 4

s ai d – /s/ /e/ /d/

h a ve – /h/ /a/ ve/

l i ke – /l/ ie/  /k/ (split vowel spelling of ie)

s o – /s/ /oe/

d o – /d/ /oo/

s o me – /s/ /u/ /m/

c o me – /k/ /u/ /m/

w ere – /w/ /er/

th ere – /the (voiced) /air/

l i tt le – /l/ /i/  /t/ /l/

one – unusual spelling

wh e n – /w/ /e/ /n/

ou t – /ow/ /t/

wh a t – /w/ /o/ /t/

Phase 5

d o n’ t – /d/ /oe/ /n/ /t/

o l d – /oe/ /l/ /d/

I’m – /ie/ /m/

b y – /b/  /ie/

t  i m e – /t/ / ie/  /m/

h ou se – /h/  /ow/ /s/

a b ou t – /a/ /b/ /ow/ /t/

y our – /y/ /or/

d ay – /d/ /ae/

m a d e – /m/ /ae/ /d/

c a m e – /k/ /ae/ /m/

h ere – /h/ /ear/

s aw – /s/ /or/

v e r y  – /v/ /e/ /r/ /ee/

p u t – /p/ /oo/ (as in ‘look’) /t/

oh – /oe/

th eir – /th/ /air/

p eo p le – /p/ /ee/ /p/ /l/

Mr – unusual spelling

Mrs – unusual spelling

l oo k ed – /l/ /oo/ /k/ /d/

c a ll ed – /c/ /or/ /l/ /d/

a s k ed – /ar/ /s/ /k/ /d/

c oul d – /k/ /oo/ (as in ‘look’)  /d/

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