Phonics – Tricky Words

phonics - reading - tricky words

Tricky Words – Phonics

Welcome to our phonics blog post series. This time we’re focusing on tricky words. This series is suitable for parents, grandparents, teachers and anyone helping children learn phonics (blog post updated 2023).

Each post is bite size, explaining phonics terminology, how phonics is taught and ideas for activities and games. If you’d like to start at the beginning of the series – click link here. If there is a specific aspect of phonics you want to know about then please use the search button on the site to help you or email me at

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What are Tricky Words?

Our English language is complex. There are lots of rules for learning to read and guess what? – The rules get broken all the time too!

It’s an incredibly complicated system our children need to get to grips with. As I say, there is some serious rule breaking – here’s where the tricky words come in. Tricky words can also be referred to as common exception words.

A tricky word is one which doesn’t follow phonics rules (or doesn’t follow the rules that the children have learnt yet) and you just have to learn it – for example – the, no, I (they are not pronounced phonetically – /t/ /h/ /e/)

Common Exception Words

It’s important when teaching children to read that we teach them not only how to decipher the phonics code, but also what to do when words don’t fit the code.

Alongside teaching children how to blend phonemes (sounds) together we teach them how to identify the words that can’t be sounded out and blended.

Often the easiest way to show a child a word is tricky is to attempt to sound it out and then find it makes a silly word that doesn’t make any sense. For example was w-a-s.

Blending – Putting together individual sounds to make words (reading). Before they can do this to read written words they need to be able to blend orally (hearing the sounds to merge them together).

What you will often find is that when children begin their phonics journey they will try to blend all words. They may blend words that they already know and will often attempt to blend tricky words.

There’s nothing wrong with attempts at blending together the sounds in tricky words. When your child does this they may self-correct and give the tricky word. If not just tell them the word and say it was a tricky word.

Next time the child sees the word remind them it was a tricky one – can they remember what it was?

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What Order Are Tricky Words Taught?

It depends which phonics scheme your child is working on, but in general most children follow the structure of the Letters and Sounds document in the UK. Link here.

If your child is following the Read Write Inc. curriculum then tricky words are known as red words (decodable ones – they follow phonics rules – are green words).

If following Letters and Sounds then the order begins as below (this document gives you the full order):

  • I , no, to, the, go, into
  • he, she, we, me, be, you
  • are, her, was, all, they, my

Having these on homemade or bought little flash cards or pebbles are a great way to help children get exposure to these words.

Why is her a tricky word?

This is where it depends upon how far through children are with their phonics. At the beginning they won’t have learnt er sound, but as they move into phase 3 (more about phases in my blog post here) they will and the word will no longer be tricky. However, it’s a common word and therefore taught as a tricky word sooner.

Tricky Word Strategies and Games

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Next I’m going to go through my top strategies to support your child in learning tricky words. Including games to keep the learning fun and strategies to use when helping them read.

Tricky Word Games

  • Splat – Write tricky words on pieces of paper or use flash cards, then using fly swatters or wooden spoons get ready to see who can splat the tricky word that’s said first. Great with more than one player, but equally good fun with one.
  • Snap – tricky words are all about sight recognition so having several copies of each word and getting children to match the words into piles or play snap the traditional way with you or a friend.
  • Bingo – here’s a link to a phase 3 phonics download from Twinkl or you could easily make your own.
  • Here’s a great little game you can play on a computer to help develop sight recognition of tricky words. has a penalty shoot out game where you select the correct spelling for tricky words – link here.

Helping to Read

When supporting children to read captions, simple sentences or short texts it’s helpful to show them a range of strategies to aid them in becoming confident, fluent readers.

I call it warming up the words, but that’s just my made up name for it! How to warm up the words? Before beginning to read a sentence you could try doing one of these ideas first.

Not all of these ideas are for tricky words, but are a great way to develop the language of reading and spelling. I wouldn’t do every one each time, just one or two:

  • Can you spot the punctuation mark?
  • Can you spot any capital letters (start of sentences, but also for names)?
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
  • How many finger spaces does that sentence have?
  • Can you spot any tricky words?
The Odd Egg
  • How many tricky words can you spot?
  • Do you know any words already that you won’t need to sound out? These are known as high frequency words. Words that come up often so that children just naturally learn them.
The Tiger Who Came to Tea
  • Are there any long words that you might need to split up?
  • Can you find the word…. the, was, to etc.
Dinosaur Roar!
  • What word could this be? It starts with a ‘d’, can the pictures help?

Hope you’ve found the tricky word ideas helpful, I’d love you to share any ideas you have in comments.

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