A Parents’ Guide to Teaching Systematic Synthetic Phonics
Our simple step-by-step guide for parents will show you how to teach the most effective type of phonics to your child – systematic synthetic phonics…
The guidelines that follow will show you how to teach the key principles of phonics step by step. They are quite detailed in places, but they should also be easy to follow as we’ve tried to make them as jargon-free as possible.
The information in this guide should be helpful for people who want to teach phonics to pre-schoolers or for those who want to provide phonics help for kids who’ve already had some reading instruction in school.
Click here for a summary of this article, or browse the contents of the main article below…
- Laying the Foundations for Reading
- Stage 1: Learning the Letter Sounds
- Stage 2: Reading Simple 2 and 3 Letter Words
- Do Some Words Need to Be Learned By Sight?
- Stage 3: Reading more complex words
- Stage 4: Introducing New Sounds and Letter Teams
- Tricky Words
- What Else Do I Need to Do?
- Further information
- If your child is a toddler, they need to be familiar with books and they should understand that writing represents spoken words before they start phonics instruction.
- Stage 1: Teach your child the common sound associated with each letter in the alphabet. It’s vitally important to avoid confusion between letter sounds and letter names. Learning the names of letters doesn’t help with reading.
- Stage 2: Teach your child how to read simple 2 and 3 letter words such as ‘it’, ‘up’, ‘sit’, ‘cat’ and ‘dog’. Point to each letter in turn as you say the sound associated with it, pausing between each letter. Repeat this, reducing the pause between each sound and then say the full word. It’s really helpful to teach spelling alongside reading in a phonics programme. See our article, ‘How Can I Teach My Child to Spell? Basic Principles’, for more information about this.
- Stage 3: Introduce more complex words with extra letters. For example, ‘huff’, ‘sock’, ‘quack’, ‘frog’, ‘crust’ and ‘trunk’. You could also introduce 2-syllable words such as ‘rabbit’ and ‘kitten’.
- Stage 4: Show your child words that have groups of letters representing one sound. For example, ‘shop’, ‘chips’, ‘snout’, ‘toad’, ‘feet’ and ‘night’.
- Stage 5: Teach your child about ‘tricky words’ that have irregular letter-sound relationships. For example, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘to’, ‘go’, ‘was’, ‘yacht’, ‘gym’, ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘eye’.
- Your child will need lots of practice reading plenty of examples of each type of word to become a fluent reader. It’s easier to find appropriate example words if you follow a good phonics programme.
- Continue reading with your child frequently and ask him or her to read some of the words in books that are appropriate for their stage at the time.
Laying the Foundations for Reading...
If your child is a toddler, it’s important that they have some basic literacy skills before you start giving them phonics instruction. They should pick up most of these skills naturally if you read to them regularly, but we’ve provided more comprehensive guidance in our article about Early Literacy Skills.
Essentially, your child needs to be familiar with books and they should understand that that writing represents spoken words.
They should be able to turn the pages of books and understand that we start at the front cover and progress to the back cover. It’s also helpful for them to understand that we read lines of text from left to right (they can pick this up by watching you if you run your finger under the text as you read).
Good comprehension of spoken English is also vital for reading comprehension and we also discuss this in our article on Early Literacy Skills.
Stage 1: Learning the Letter Sounds
The key idea that underpins phonics instruction is that children need to learn the relationships between the letters in written words and the individual sounds in spoken words.
Consequently, the first step in teaching kids phonics is to make them aware of the common sound associated with each letter of the alphabet.
Skip to stage 2 if your child can already recognise all of the letter sounds quickly and accurately.
It’s vitally important to avoid confusion between letter sounds and letter names.
For example, think of the sound the letter ‘b’ makes in the words ‘bug’ or ‘bat’; it’s quite different from the letter name, which sounds more like ‘bee’. Similarly, the letter ‘c’ doesn’t sound like ‘see’ in words like ‘cat’ or ‘cup’.
We recommend that you only mention letter sounds for now and avoid letter names until your child is reading fluently.
That’s because knowing the letter names doesn’t actually help when a child is learning to read and using letter names might even interfere with their ability to read and spell.
See our article, “Should I Teach My Toddler Letter Names?”, for a more detailed discussion of this issue.
Don’t worry unduly if you’ve already taught your child the letter names. Just tell him or her that each letter has a sound as well as a name and that, “we’re going to just say the sounds now we are learning to read”.
The following table gives a list of words that contain the common letter sounds. Don’t try to get your child to read the words yet, they are provided as examples for you so you are clear about the sound we want you to teach your child for each letter.
Example words that contain the common sound
Ant, apple, hat,
Bat, bug, rabbit
Cat, cup, can
Dog, dad, mud
Egg, elephant, ten
Fan, fog, if
Gap, gate, big
Hen, hat, house
It, igloo, tip
Jet, jam, jog
Ken, kit, key
Leg, lamp, doll.
Mat, mouse, ham
Net, nurse, fun
On, ostrich, dog
Pig, pencil, tap
Queen, quack, squid
Rat, robot, carrot
Sun, snake, grass
Tomato, tiger, hat
Umbrella, up, mud
Van, volcano, Kevin
Window, web, wag
Box, six, taxi,
Yes, yo yo, yellow
Zero, zip, buzz
Points to note:
- You will notice that we have written ‘qu’ instead of ‘q’. This isn’t a miss-print; it simply recognises that ‘q’ almost always appears in words with a ‘u’ following it. For this reason, many phonics programmes teach the letter combination ‘qu’, rather than ‘q’ on its own, and we think there’s some sense in doing this, although it’s not essential. Notice that the two letters together usually make a sound that is like the sounds of ‘k’ and ‘w’ combined – ‘kw’. So ‘Queen’ and ‘quack’ would sound the same if we spelled them incorrectly as ‘Kween’ or ‘kwack’.
- Similarly, ‘x’ doesn’t really have an individual sound, it is more like a ‘k’ followed by an ‘s’ – ‘ks’. So if we spelled ‘fox’ incorrectly as ‘foks’ it would sound the same.
- The ‘x’ sound isn’t normally heard at the start of words even when ‘x’ is the first letter. For example, in xylophone, the ‘x’ actually sounds like a ‘z’, and even in x-ray it doesn’t have the ‘ks’ sound, so don’t use these as examples when you are teaching the sound to your child. Explain to your child that the sound isn’t heard at the start of words.
- ‘C’ and ‘k’ actually make the same sound, so when teaching young children to distinguish between the two it is common practice to describe them as curly ‘c’ and kicking ‘k’.
- You have to be quite careful when pronouncing some of the consonant letters. For example, when pronouncing ‘c’ as in ‘cat’ many people say it as ‘cuh’. Similarly, ‘t’ is often pronounced as ‘tuh’. Try not to say the ‘uh’ for these letter sounds because this will make it easier when your child gets to stage 2 where they will be combining letter sounds to make simple words. If you say the letter sounds ‘c’-‘a’-‘t’ one after the other it is quite easy to pick out the word cat. But it’s more difficult if you pronounce the letters as ‘cuh’-‘a’-‘tuh’. The same is true for other letters, so it should be ‘sss’, not ‘suh’, ‘mmm’, not ‘muh’, ‘fff’, not ‘fuh’ etc. However, it can be very difficult not to say a slight ‘uh’ for some letter sounds like ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘g’ and ‘y’.
- Some programmes introduce a smaller number of letters first and teach children to read words made up from these letters before learning another set of letters.
For example, they might introduce the letters: ‘s’, ‘a’, ‘t’, ‘p’, ‘i’ and ‘n’, and teach children to read ‘sat’, ‘sip’, ‘pat’, ‘pin’ etc. Then move on to teaching say ‘m’, ‘d’ and ‘g’. This is a perfectly good approach but it’s not essential and it’s probably easier for someone teaching phonics for the first time just to teach all of the letters first. Also, there can be some advantages to learning all of the letters first as it allows groups of words to be taught more systematically, which can help with learning to spell.
Reading specialist, Tami Reis-Frankfort, demonstrates the precise pronunciation of the letter sounds in the video below. She also demonstrates the sounds of some ‘letter-teams’, which we discuss in stage 4 of this article.
How to Introduce the Letter Sounds
This can be done in a variety of ways, and the greater variety of methods you use the faster your child will pick up the sounds.
The simplest method is just to show your child a printed alphabet card while you say the sound clearly several times, then get them to repeat it.
There are a variety of alphabet cards available online and you can even purchase foam alphabet letters for your child to play with in the bath.
You can also purchase colourful alphabet books and posters or you could download our free alphabet letter sound sheets.
The more you expose your child to the letters and their sounds the quicker they will pick them up. However, try not to overwhelm them by showing them all the letters in one go.
As a guide, many school phonics programmes in the UK recommend introducing around 2 – 5 new letter sounds each week. You could introduce a new letter sound each day, but remember to also include revision of the sounds taught in previous lessons.
Copying letters with a pencil and paper is one of the best ways of learning their different shapes because it’s a form of multisensory learning.
If your child isn’t ready to copy letters, they might enjoy colouring them in. Colouring isn’t as beneficial as writing letters but it can still help your child to get familiar with the letter shapes.
Our free letter-sound worksheets have have some letters to colour along with other activities to help your child recognise letters and match them to sounds.
There are also some educational electronic toys that are designed to teach children the alphabet, but most seem to give the letter names instead of the sounds, which doesn’t help with reading as we’ve already mentioned. If you own any of these it’s probably best to put them away until your child is reading fluently.
It is possible to find some electronic toys that teach the letter sounds; however, electronic toys are not essential for teaching your child phonics.
There are also some commercial DVD’s that introduce letter names in interesting ways and there are some good free videos available on sites such as YouTube.
Try to choose videos that only give the letter sounds rather than the names like the one below:
Should I Teach Upper Case and Lower Case Letters?
A lot of phonics programmes recommend that the lower case letters should be taught first because these appear much more frequently in print. We think this is a reasonable approach.
The timing of introducing capitals isn’t crucial. If you want to teach upper case letters alongside the lower case ones it will take a bit longer to move on to stage 2.
However, the upper case letters do need to be learned eventually anyway, so it shouldn’t make much difference in the long-run.
Also, children sometimes ask about upper case letters when they are looking at books with an adult, and it makes sense to explain the idea to them if they are showing a natural curiosity.
Another option might be to use a ‘drip-feed’ approach with capital letters. You could introduce 2 or 3 after your child has mastered the lower case ones and then introduce a couple of new capital letters during each new stage of the programme.
How will I know when my child is ready to move on to the next stage?
Your child will be learning to read simple 2 and 3 letter words for the first time in stage 2, so it’s important that they can recognise the letter sounds without hesitation before they attempt to read any words that contain these sounds.
Their response should be instant and automatic. If your child is struggling to recall the individual sounds they won’t be able to grasp how they merge together to form words.
To check if they are ready, shuffle some letter cards and hold them up one at a time for your child.
If they get them all correct, confidently and without having to pause for thought, then they are ready for stage 2.
If they get some wrong, or are slow to recall the sounds of a few of the letters, then make a note of the ones they are struggling with and spend a few days focussing on these. Then re-assess all of the letters again and only move onto stage 2 if they have mastered each one.
Stage 2: Reading Simple 2 and 3 Letter Words
Although the words you will introduce here are quite simple, this stage represents a huge conceptual leap because your child will be learning how the sounds represented by letters combine together to form words.
The main objective of this stage is self-explanatory from the title, but as well as learning to recognise words from printed letters, your child will also have to learn how to spell words.
Learning to spell and read at the same time using phonics is helpful because, according to some researchers, teaching a child how to spell words can actually make them a more fluent reader.
Please see our article, ‘How Can I Teach My Child to Spell? Basic Principles’,for more information about this.
How to Get Your Child Reading Simple Words...
At this early stage, it’s best to start with words that contain just a vowel and consonant, such as ‘it’ and ‘up’, or words with a consonant followed by a vowel then another consonant (CVC words), such as ‘sit’, ‘cat’, ‘dog’ etc.
Here are a few more examples of suitable words to help you get started:
*See our free printable CVC word lists for lots more suitable words.
It’s easier if your child has just one word to focus on at a time. If there are several words on a page their attention could easily drift from one word to another.
So write a single word on a piece of paper or mini-whiteboard.
To get your child to focus on the word, either sit facing them, holding the word up in front of you as you point to each letter, or sit beside them and help them to point to each letter in turn.
Now follow the simple 3-step procedure below:
- As you point to the first letter say its sound, pause, and then move on to the other letters saying each sound in turn with a short pause between each letter sound.
It’s best to emphasise the first letter sound by saying it slightly louder than the others. Also, remember to reduce the ‘uh’ after the consonant letters as much as possible as we discussed earlier.
- Now repeat this procedure for the same word again, but say the sounds a bit faster this time by shortening each pause.
- Then say the word normally as you run your finger quickly under the whole word from left to right.
So, for example, if the word was ‘bat’ you would point to each letter and say:
(pausing between each letter sound and emphasising the first letter).
(shorter pause between each letter sound, again emphasising the first letter).
(just saying the word normally as you run your finger quickly under the whole word from left to right).
The idea here is to demonstrate to your child that they need to identify and say the individual letter sounds* first and then combine them together to make a recognisable word.
*Saying the individual sounds in a word is sometimes called ‘sounding out’ in phonics instruction.
Reducing the pause in the second step helps them to hear and grasp how the individual sounds merge together to make the word in step 3.
Next, get your child to repeat the 3-step procedure for the same word as you point to each letter again, or guide them to point to each letter.
Adjust the speed of pointing between letters so that you point to the letters more quickly in step 2. If your child doesn’t say the word in step 3 ask them what it is, or just say “spells?” If they still don’t respond, just say the word again for them and ask them to repeat it.
Saying the letter sounds should be easy for a child who has completed stage 1 of the programme, but don’t be surprised if they can’t tell you what the word is in step 3. If they can’t tell you, don’t make a big deal of it; just do it for them by repeating steps 2 and 3 yourself. Then get them to repeat the word after you’ve said it.
Once you’ve demonstrated the idea for 2 or 3 words, see if they can do a new word all by themselves. If they struggle, just lead them through it and then move on to another new word.
You might find that after you’ve done the first 3-letter word ‘bat’ they think that every other word you do spells ‘bat’ too. This isn’t anything to worry about, just keep gently correcting them and they will eventually get the idea that different letters combine to make different words.
Some Other Important Points
- The 3-step procedure described above is very much for absolute beginners. As your child gets more familiar with the idea of combining letter sounds they will be able to figure out words after just sounding out each letter once. And eventually, they will be able to do the whole process automatically in their heads, perhaps only having to sound out very long or unfamiliar words.
- Don’t do too much in one go, especially if your child is a toddler. As a guide, you might want to aim for sessions of around 10 minutes for very young children, but be prepared to stop a few minutes sooner, or go on for a few minutes longer, depending on your child’s age and focus at the time.
It’s certainly better to stop while your child is still enthusiastic than to keep going until they get bored or irritable.
School-age children should be able to concentrate for significantly longer periods than toddlers. Around 20-30 minutes a day would be a reasonable target for a child who has fallen behind with their reading and spelling. Split the time up into 2 sessions if concentration is a problem.
- You can choose to do a session every day, or every few days, but 3-5 times a week should be a minimum if you want your child to make good progress. In general, it’s better to space out sessions over the week than to cram them into one or two days.
- At this very early stage, it’s helpful if your child has a good grasp of the meaning of a word before they attempt to read it. If it’s outside their vocabulary it will be much more difficult for them to understand what is going on. Later, when your child has become reasonably proficient, it’s actually good for them to attempt reading a few words that they’ve never heard before.
- Don’t repeat the same set of words too often or your child might start memorising the words rather than having to work them out from the letter sounds.
Although it’s good for reading fluency to remember some words, your child still needs plenty of practice at decoding new words, so make up some extra suitable words or look up some online.
When you’re searching for extra words, be careful which ones you choose, as some common words have letters that don’t represent their usual sounds.
For example, in the word ‘was’, the letter ‘a’ sounds like an ‘o’ and the letter ‘s’ sounds like a ‘z’. Other examples where some of the letters have irregular sounds include ‘has’, ‘his’, ‘do’, ‘to’, ‘go’, ‘so’, ‘he’, ‘we’ and ‘of’.
We think it’s best to deal with words like these after children have mastered the most common sounds. At this early stage, learning tricky words like these could cause confusion.
- Keep reading to your child every day and look out for simple words in books they might be able to read for themselves. If they struggle to read a word, then help them to sound out and combine the letters.
Don’t ask your child to guess words in books based on the pictures or context. Although this strategy might work sometimes for simple picture books, ultimately it will cause problems as they encounter harder books with more words and fewer pictures.
Do Some Words Need to Be Learned By Sight?
Some educators recommend that so-called ‘high-frequency words’ should be taught early in a reading programme and learned as whole words.
These are sometimes referred to as sight words because children are expected to memorise the shapes of the words rather than focus on the letters that make them up.
The idea is that kids will learn to read faster this way because these words appear a lot in children’s literature. This argument sounds logical enough but we’re not really convinced by it.
Children should be taught to focus on the letters in words right from the start because this is the most reliable way of figuring out the hundreds of unfamiliar words they will meet in their first few months as beginning readers.
There are quite a few common words with irregular spellings that are more difficult to read using phonics rules.
However, most irregular words contain some sounds that are represented by regular letters or regular groups of letters, and often these can give a clue as to what the word might be.
We discuss the topic of sight words in more depth in a separate article and Alison Clarke makes some good points in the short video clip below:
Even for the most irregular words, letter patterns still need to be learned for a child to spell them correctly.
Research shows that children are better at reading irregular words after they’ve developed a sound foundation in phonics, so we will discuss irregular words in more detail near the end of this article in the section called ‘Tricky Words’.
Stage 3: Reading more complex words
With systematic phonics instruction, children are introduced to more complex words gradually.
For example, once a child can read simple 2 and 3 letter words consistently, they could be introduced to words with double consonants such as ‘puff’, ‘doll’, ‘mess’, ‘fizz’ and ‘egg’.
This gets kids used to the idea that when there are two identical consonants together in a word we say the sound as if the two consonants were just a single letter. For example, with the word ‘huff’ we would say:
‘h’-‘u’-‘ff’ and not ‘h’-‘u’-‘f’-‘f’
This might seem obvious to an experienced reader, but it isn’t for someone who has just learned the basics of combining letter sounds to read words.
We want to keep things as simple as possible when children are learning to read, so you don’t need to mention the term ‘consonants’ to your child at this stage (unless you know they are already familiar with the term).
Stick with ‘letters’ and ‘sounds’ for now. Introducing unnecessary new concepts at this point is more likely to confuse your child than to help them.
Words containing ‘ck’, such as ‘sock’ and ‘duck’ can be introduced next followed by words containing ‘qu’, such as ‘quack’ and ‘quick’.
You could tackle words that have adjacent mixed consonants next. Some phonics teachers call these ‘consonant blends’ or ‘consonant clusters‘.
The word ‘swim’ is an example in this group of words because it starts with 2 consonants next to each other: ‘s’ and ‘w’, and we have to say both letter sounds and combine (or blend) them together to make ‘sw’.
Similarly, the word ‘frog’ starts with ‘fr’ and the word ‘belt’ ends with ‘lt’.
Some children can tackle these words without any problem; however, others can find reading words with consonant blends difficult at first, so be patient.
Once your child has got to grips with reading these words, give them examples with more than one set of adjacent mixed consonants, such as ‘crust’, ‘trunk’, ‘frost’ and ‘drank’.
Children also need to learn how to read words with more than one syllable. Start with 2-syllable words like the examples below:
robin rabbit carrot kitten pocket ribbon bucket basket sandpit
Reading these words doesn’t really require any new knowledge, but it does require a reasonable level of fluency as the words are generally a bit longer than the ones they’ve met up to this point.
Fluency only comes with practice, which is why providing lots of suitable examples is important.
However, it’s also vitally important to keep phonics instruction relevant and meaningful. So continue reading books with your child every day and look out for new words they can read for themselves in books as their skill level increases.
At this stage, you can also get them to read simple captions such as “a black dog” or “ducks in a pond”.
If you decide to include pictures with captions, it’s better if you only show them after your child has successfully read the words. If you show a picture with a caption, your child is more likely to just guess rather than read the words.
Stage 4: Introducing New Sounds and Letter Teams
It’s generally recognised that it’s harder to learn to read in English than it is for most other languages.
We discuss most of the reasons for this in some detail in another article. However, one of the main problems is that there are more sounds in spoken English than there are letters in the alphabet.
To get around this problem, we use groups of letters to represent some sounds.
For example, when ‘s’ and ‘h’ are paired together in words like shop, or fish we say a sound that’s rather like the sound we make when we want someone to be quiet: ‘sh’.
We don’t vocalise the individual letter sounds, the two letters represent one sound.
Similarly, if we read words like ‘out’, or ‘cloud’ we say a sound that’s similar to the one we might make if we were to drop something on our toe; ‘o’ and ‘u’ are not sounded out individually.
There are many other examples like these, where groups of letters team up to make a new sound.
Some of them are 3-letter combinations, like ‘igh’ in high and light, which sounds like the letter name for ‘i’.
Phonics instructors often use the terms ‘digraphs’ and ‘trigraphs’ for these letter combinations, but we think ‘letter teams’ is a more child-friendly phrase.
We borrowed this phrase from the BBC ‘Alphablocks’ reading programme. You can see their video explaining the idea below:
Note that these letter teams are quite different from the adjacent mixed consonants/consonant blends we met earlier.
With consonant blends, such as the ‘fr’ in frog, each letter still represents a separate sound and they don’t need to be recognised as a special letter pairing.
In contrast, letter teams represent single sounds that are different from the individual letters that make them up. And they do need to be recognised in order to read words containing them properly.
Some sources on the internet don’t seem to understand this difference.
Here are some other examples of letter teams your child will need to learn:
- When ‘c’ and ‘h’ team up together the most common sound they represent is the one you would find in words like ‘chips’, ‘chat’ or ‘patch’.
- The ‘ai’ letter team is found in a variety of words such as ‘rain’, mail and ‘tail’.
- The ‘ee’ letter team sounds the same as the name for the letter ‘e’. Examples of words include feet, peek and tree.
- The ‘oa’ letter team is found in many common words such as coat, soap and toast; it sounds like the letter name for ‘o’.
- The ‘oi’ letter team is found in words such as coin, point and soil.
- The ‘or’ sound is found in words such as corn, fork and torn.
- The ‘ph’ letter team is an alternative way of representing the ‘f’ sound and it appears in quite a few common words that children are familiar with, such as ‘elephant’ and ‘dolphin’.
Your child will need to practise plenty of examples of words containing each of these letter teams before they will recognise them automatically. And, unfortunately, they will also have to learn a number of other letter teams that represent some of the same sounds.
- The ‘ai’ sound can also be represented by ‘ay’ in words such as day, play and way.
- ‘ea’ is used as an alternative to ‘ee’ in many common words such as eat, leaf and cream.
- The ‘ee’ sound has another alternative spelling that’s used at the end of words: ‘ey’. For example, donkey and hockey.
- Some common words use an alternative spelling for the ‘or’ sound. Examples of words with an alternative letter team include draw, saw and crawl and there is yet another spelling to represent the same sound in words such as pause and August.
Some letter teams are ‘split’ either side of a consonant.
This is easier to understand by looking at example words where the letter teams have been highlighted:
gate, Pete, kite, bone and June.
Notice that in each case there is an ‘e’ after the consonant. Since this modifies the sound of the vowel (by making it sound like its letter name) it’s sometimes called ‘magic e’.
To complicate things even more, some letter teams with the same spelling can represent 2 alternative sounds:
- For example, the ‘ow’ letter team has a common sound in snow, blow, crow, flow and throw, but quite a different sound in many other common words such as cow, now, town, clown, and brown.
- And the ‘oo’ letter team in zoo and hoop has a different sound in foot and wood.
There are other letter teams that we haven’t mentioned in this article to avoid making it too long.
For many people, the thought of ploughing through them all with a child can seem daunting. If it all seems like a lot of work to you, you’re right, it is.
But it is doable if it’s approached in the right way, and it’s far more efficient and effective than trying to memorise thousands of words by sight.
A good phonics programme can make the whole process a lot less overwhelming by introducing new letter teams in a structured and logical sequence.
In fact, with the right programme, teaching a youngster to read can be an enjoyable experience for both the parent and the child.
It is possible to look up examples of words for all of the important letter teams yourself, but coming up with sufficient numbers of the right ones can be very time-consuming.
Also, a lot of words contain more than one letter team, for example:
These are sometimes described as “irregular words” or “sight words” and we’ve discussed them briefly already in this article.
We’ve also written a more detailed discussion about sight words in a separate article.
Whatever phrase is used to describe them, tricky words have some letters (or letter combinations) in them that are pronounced differently than they are in regular words…
For example, the letter ‘a’ in ‘bacon’ is pronounced as ‘ai’, and in ‘wasp’ the ‘a’ is pronounced like an ‘o’. In the word ‘many’, the letter ‘a’ has the same sound as the letter ‘e’ in ‘pet’.
These pronunciations are different from the familiar sound for ‘a’ we find in regular words like cat, ant or bank.
The word ‘was’ has irregular sounds for the letter ‘a’ and for the letter ‘s’. It sounds like it should be spelled as ‘woz’.
Tricky words like these appear quite often in print, even in books for very young children. Consequently, many reading programmes teach children to recognise tricky words ‘by sight’ very early.
Sometimes tricky words are even introduced before children have been taught the common sounds represented by the letters in the alphabet.
However, we think this approach is counterproductive; it’s like trying to teach a child to run before it can walk.
Building a strong foundation by concentrating on the basics before moving on to more complex examples is a fundamental principle of good teaching.
We’re not the only ones with this opinion. As we’ve already mentioned, spelling expert Alison Clarke has highlighted some of the problems of teaching sight words in her excellent ‘Spelfabet’ website.
Most tricky words contain some letters with more familiar pronunciations and these can help children to read and spell tricky words once they’ve developed a good grasp of phonics.
It’s true that some common words, such as ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘eye’ have extremely tricky spellings; however, even with these words, the spelling patterns aren’t completely unique.
For example, ‘once’ is similar to ‘one’, ‘twin’, ‘twice’ and twenty are similar to ‘two’, and ‘bye’ and ‘dye’ have a similar letter pattern to ‘eye’.
If you point these patterns out to your child they are more likely to remember how to read and spell the words.
You could introduce the basic idea of tricky words to your child by saying: “Letters can sometimes have more than one sound.”
Explain that reading some words can be tricky because some of the letters that are used in them don’t have the sounds we expect.
Tricky words can be learned in a fairly systematic way, and this is much more efficient than trying to learn dozens of words from their visual appearance alone.
This is especially true for spelling. See our article ‘Teach Your Child to Spell More Complex Words’ for more information on this.
Our own preference is to look at groups of tricky words with common patterns in their spellings or pronunciations first.
For example, in a variety of words, the letter ‘y’ is pronounced differently than it is in regular words such as yes and yellow:
- When it’s found at the end of a 2-syllable word it often sounds like ‘ee’, as in happy, Daddy and sunny (this happens a lot after a double consonant, and also for a lot of words ending in ‘ky’ or ‘ly’, for example ‘cheeky’, ‘silky’, ‘slowly’ and ‘badly’).
- In some short one-syllable words, a ‘y’ at the end can have the ‘igh’ sound as in by, my and sky. This isn’t as common as the ‘ee’ sound for a y.
- And ‘y’ can also have the same sound as ‘i’ for insect, for example in crystal, syrup and pyramid.
You need to be careful about when you introduce some examples of tricky words. For instance, if you were giving your child examples of words with unusual ‘y’ sounds, it could be confusing if you asked them to read the words ‘baby’ or ‘gym’. That’s because these words also have alternative sounds for the letters ‘a’ and ‘g’.
Once your child has seen various of groups of tricky words with similar spelling patterns you can introduce them to the tricky words that appear most often in print.
There are various sources you can use for common word lists. The words in each source vary slightly depending on which books were used for the research, but overall they are fairly similar, with most agreeing that ‘the’ is the most used word in English.
The list on this Wikipedia link was compiled by researchers from the Oxford English Dictionary.
If you research common word lists, you will notice that quite a lot of the words aren’t tricky at all, and many of the tricky words have only one or two tricky bits.
The simplest strategy for learning tricky words is to get your child to sound out the letters in each word as they appear. You can then identify the tricky bits and point out the correct pronunciation for them.
Explain to your child that if a word doesn’t sound right when they read it they should try alternative pronunciations. But remind them that sometimes they might actually be saying a word correctly, and it may only sound odd because it’s unfamiliar to them.
It can be really helpful to reinforce any words you’ve covered during the sessions on tricky words when you are reading books together.
For example, if your child has trouble learning the word ‘the’ you could point one out in a book and then ask them to point to as many as he or she can find on a page.
You could also give them an old magazine and get them to highlight or underline particular tricky words.
Very soon though, you will find that your child struggles with fewer and fewer words in the books you read.
Nevertheless, you will need to help them with the pronunciation or meaning of an occasional word for years to come because there’s such a vast number of words in the English language.
What Else Do I Need to Do?
Although phonics is a very important part of learning to read, it’s also vital that you help your child to develop a love of books, a good vocabulary and a broad range of general knowledge.
Remember that it’s also really helpful to teach spelling alongside reading in a phonics programme. See our article, ‘How Can I Teach My Child to Spell? Basic Principles’, for more information about this.
You might also find the link in the further information section below useful.
- Duke, N.K, and Mesmer, H.A.E. “Teach Sight Words as You Would Other Words.” Literacy Daily, International Literacy Association. June 2016: https://www.literacyworldwide.org/blog/literacy-daily/2016/06/23/teach-ldquo-sight-words-rdquo-as-you-would-other-words