Essential tricky words


The best young readers recognise quite early on that phonics gets u only so far, and that what learning to read is really about is learning to recognise all common words by sight, as fast as possible. Even with decodable words, like ‘cat, mat, sat’, decoding serves as an aid to embedding words in the sight-word memory store. One of my grandsons, whose teacher subscribed to synthetic phonics, made me keenly aware of this a year ago.

When reading to him at bedtime, I asked him if he would like to try and join in. He took a quick look at a page and said, “No. There are still too many words I don’t know yet”.

I asked him if there were words he could read, and he instantly found lots of them, such as ‘did, not, go, him, but, very, made …” . - He had been practising them in his phonics lessons, but frequent exposure ended up enabling him to recognise them as wholes.

Advocates of synthetic phonics claim that they are teaching ‘the English alphabet code’ and ‘relationship between sounds and letters’, by means of decoding. But while learning to decode, children also learn to sight-read the words as whole entities.

Three quarters of English words can be straightforwardly decoded, and children can learn to sight-read them, simply by decoding them a few times. They can do so with short words as well as longer ones, like ‘interesting’ or ‘proclaim’. Once they have grasped the phonics fundamentals which I discussed in my penultimate post, they can do this on their own.

The words that make children dependent on reading help from others are the less decodable ones, like ‘one, once’ and ‘only’. Especially written, graded reading books can avoid them to start with. In real texts, they crop up on every page.

Enabling pupils to sight-read them as quickly as possible is therefore the best way of helping them to become more independent, fluent readers. It stops them being repeatedly tripped up when reading ordinary stories, rather than the specially written phonic ones, with deliberately limited vocabulary.

Knowing the following 93 tricky words (and their most common derivatives) is especially helpful in becoming a fluent reader:

The, he, she, we, be, me,  to, said,  was, you,

all, are, what, there, here, were, where, one, do, have, some, something,

down, when, don’t, come, now, know, oh, people, our, house, your, could,

wanted, water, want, how, would, good, book, school, room, look, took, who,

bear, eat, everyone, two, thought, into, I’ll, I’m, other, through, door, sea,

live, couldn’t, head, town, every, even, never, ever, only, many, laughed, told,

another, great, why, key, mother, each, any, snow, tea, eyes, friends, gone,

ready, once, please, most, cold, lived, while, coming, giant, animals, grow,

(lived, looked, looking, looks, there’s, he’s).

Several hundred other common words pose various decoding problems as well. The above list in not definitive, but the irregular spellings of those words are among the worst retardants of reading progress. 

Author Profile

Masha  Bell

Masha Bell

Retired teacher of English and modern languages, now literacy researcher and writer

21 stories


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