Why Should We Focus on Tricky Words?

Thursday, June 24, 2021 | 04:10pm

By Dr. Lisa Coons, Chief Academic Officer

When my son was born, I wanted him to love reading. I wanted him to read Green Eggs and Ham, love going to Tuesday library story time, and enjoy reading books all Sunday afternoon. As a child, I read to him every night before bed. We went to the bookstore and the library and filled his room with books. Then, he went to first grade. On the second week of school, he came home with a Dolch Sight Word List. If he memorized each list by Wednesday, he didn’t have to take a spelling test on Friday.

I thought I had found a new way to teach my son to read faster. We made flash cards. We drilled sight words to and from school. We made sticker charts to see how many sight words he could learn. We asked his teacher for the next week’s list and then the lists came more and more frequently. By November, he had memorized every sight Dolch word list for first and second grade. I thought I was helping him read, but I now know, I was teaching him to be a great memorizer. 


We actually need to teach our children to be code breakers, not to be memorizers of words.

The English language has 24 letters, but more than 44 sounds. By learning these sounds, students can break down and understand new words while reading instead of trying to memorize or guess the words in the text. When we teach children to read, we must first teach sounds and how sounds work together. We need to focus on teaching the over 44 sounds so that the sounds are learned before letters, which is phonemic awareness. Then, we teach them “the code” -all the ways these sounds correspond to letters, or phonics. This approach begins their journey as “code breakers.” Our children go through a series of explicit and intentional explorations, practice playing with sounds and start to build letters into their understanding, and then finally create mastery activities to build an understanding of the code.

But what happens when a word doesn’t follow the code like, “where?” If you were my son, you memorized these words as “sight words” because we thought they weren’t decodable. We were wrong. Many sight words actually have parts of code in them, but they are “tricky.” Tricky words don’t follow the entire code, but they have parts of codes in their structure. These words are “tricky words” to be decoded, not sight words to be memorized. Instead of having children memorize lists of multiple words, we can teach our children to find pieces of code and learn when words don’t follow the code completely. Then our children become code breakers.

Check out this video that shows you how to sound out tricky words.


Take this example: w·h·e·r·e

The first two letters blend making the /wh/ sound and the last letter r makes the bossy /r/ sound and is phonetically correct. However, the silent e does not make any phonetic sounds associated with it and makes the / ē / sound. When we teach this sound first approach, the word becomes integrated into the code knowledge and the student can integrate the word into parts of the code instead of just memorizing the word separately from the code.

Finally, sight word memorization encourages children to stop reading, guess at what the word is from memory, and this guessing game breaks reading practice. Children should not make reading a guessing game; this approach is frustrating and doesn’t help children learn to read at all. Instead, reading becomes more challenging, children lose the practice of being a code breaker, and then, students often quit reading when guessing doesn’t work. Instead, using the “tricky word” approach allows the child to continue to be a code breaker and have skills to build their reading capacity and feel successful.

There are some words that are rule breakers and don’t follow the code at all. However, these words are far and few between. Only 4% of the English language completely breaks the code. What a difference from the many lists of words my son memorized!

We also know how critical grades one and two are to ensuring the code is solidified before students reach third grade. Ever hear of the third-grade slump?

When children use the code to learn parts of tricky words, they are applying their knowledge of sounds to words and the words become anchored to parts of the code. Children are successful code breakers that allow them to read more and more challenging texts.

Now, we can teach our children to be thinkers, to apply their learning, to be code breakers. We have better strategies; we know better; we will do better for our children. 

Learn more about the state’s comprehensive literacy initiative, Reading 360, here.