Tricky Words: What They Are & 8 Fun Games to Teach Them

Tricky Words: What They Are & 8 Fun Games to Teach Them

Whether you call them high-frequency, sight, or heart words, these tricky words can make learning how to read much more complicated for young readers. Here are just some of my favourite activities to teach these irregular words the right way!

How do you help children to learn how to sound out words when many of the most frequently used words don't appear to follow the rules? Have you ever run into this problem when trying to teach your young students how to read? 

Between the silent letters, double letters, diphthongs, and digraphs, these words often don't appear to make sense on their own. Unfortunately, as educators, it's become common to think that sight words must be memorised, with students being told that they simply need to remember specific words because they do not follow the rules. 

But spoiler alert - are you aware that nearly 98% of words in the English language are decodable? It is essential that we show students how to decode all words, even sight words. According to a large body of research (the science of reading), teaching students how to decode words instead of memorising them is a far more effective approach to reading which leads to automaticity in reading.


If you're interested in supporting decoding in your classroom to help your students read sight words, keep reading for some strategies and lesson ideas.

What are tricky words?

Previously, it was thought that one of the things that makes the English language incredibly hard to learn is the sheer number of words that cannot be sounded out by their traditional letter-sound correspondences.

You may have previously heard these words called high frequency words or sight words. You may also have grown up with the belief that instead of decoding these words using their knowledge of sounds, students will need to memorise the whole word "by sight." Teachers would traditionally send home a high-frequency word list or flashcards and ask parents to quiz their little ones on these words until they memorised them.

You might be surprised to know that this exact issue is at the heart of a huge literacy instruction debate. More and more research has emerged to prove that learning to read by sight is ineffective and leaves many students behind. The brain has to work much harder to remember how a word looks. A far more effective technique is to teach a child to decode the word by its individual sounds, even if part of the word is irregular. 

How do we teach students tricky words in synthetic phonics?

In synthetic phonics (part of a Science of Reading approach), students connect the common sounds, or phonemes, in each spoken word to different written letters or combinations.

Learning to read starts starts with oral language. As students become comfortable identifying the sounds at the beginning, middle, and end of a word, they begin connecting those phonemes to individual letters or groups of letters.

They tap into their existing neural networks for spoken language to connect the sounds they already know with these new written symbols. This is a powerful and effective way to teach reading because you're enhancing what children already know. 


Once students know the letters to represent the sounds they hear, they can use those skills to decode new and more challenging words.

If we don't want students to memorise words, but we have hundreds of confusing words that kids must know by heart, we have a problem. 

Students must know these challenging words that can't be sounded out normally, so what do we do? How do we teach our students high frequency words with decoding?

This is where orthographic mapping comes in. Although it sounds confusing, it's simply a process of encoding letter-sound relationships in a child's memory.

How to teach orthographic mapping for tricky words

I've created an easy step-by-step tutorial on using orthographic mapping with tricky words, and I promise it's so easy! 

  1. Students will start by counting the sounds in a tricky word.
  2. They then spell the parts of the word that they can sound out. With support at first, help them learn the unusual spelling pattern that matches the sound they hear. 
  3. They'll draw a heart over the tricky parts of the word to help them remember this unusual pattern.
orthographic mapping process

As they practise this word exercise, they'll start encoding these challenging words into their memory. Students should only have to use orthographic mapping 1-5 times to learn new words, yet they'd need up to 500 repetitions if you relied on memorising those tricky spellings!

Can I use flashcards to teach sight words?

Although teachers have been sending home tricky word cards for years, I don't recommend this. As I explained in my post about teaching high frequency words to kindergarteners, this process can undermine your reader's ability to learn these common exception words.

Of course, we have limited time in class, and flash cards have tradionally allowed students to practice their new words independently. But here are some of the problems if they are not used correctly:

Problems with flashcards

  • Students may be mispronouncing the words - These high-frequency words are known to be hard to read. If they work independently, students may misread the word and connect the wrong pronunciation to the sound. It's best to start by stating the word out loud and then decoding it.
  • Students are doing more work for less reward - If students have to practise each word up to 500 times, they're wasting a significant amount of time and are more likely to fall behind. 
  • Students will lose passion for reading - Especially for young children who are already delayed in reading, practising sight words endlessly will reinforce that reading is boring and they will start to avoid it.
  • Some students will not learn - Although many students learn how to read just fine with sight words, many students will not. This can become a real challenge as they get older without grasping these fundamental reading skills. 
  • The skills are not transferable - When students memorise just one word, they don't learn the essential letter-sound recognition skills that would help them become fluent readers. Instead, if they spend time decoding even these tricky words, they'll be able to transfer those skills to other words, building their fluency over time.

If you want to use flashcards, use heart word flash cards.


They break down the segmenting process to help students sound out each word. However, this will only work if students are actually decoding the word. Try using these flash cards differently by:

  1. Saying the word.
  2. Having the student segment the individual sounds out loud and then try to write the word. Add a heart to the tricky part.
  3. Using the cards to confirm their spelling and show which section of the word is irregular. 

This tricky word mapping tool is a great way to implement this routine effectively.




Daily Routines to Teach Tricky Words

Instead of teaching children to compensate or figure out words by guessing, let's take the time to teach them how to fully encode the words they know so they can decode them when they're reading books independently. There are so many ways to do this in various settings. I promise it's easier than it sounds!

Orthographic Mapping Template

If you're ready to teach your little ones how to map these unusual words, try this orthographic mapping template! 

I recommend putting these in durable plastic sleeves and giving them to every student in your classroom or small group. This is a great tool that they can use to map any tricky word with up to 6 sounds.

This template is great for independent or partner activities. It's also a strong homework alternative to flash cards, although you will need to teach students and families how to use it properly.

I also have a digital orthographic mapping template to use with your whole class during morning meeting or your literacy block! The more you can turn orthographic mapping into a daily routine, the quicker students will begin using it independently.


Tricky Words Posters

Turn this way of thinking into a way of life by teaching and displaying these tricky word posters in your classroom! These would be great for sparking literacy discussions during morning meetings. 


My free download has eight common words, but my paid version will give you 80, plenty to get you through several months of school!

Tricky Word Powerpoint Lessons

There's no way around it: you have to teach students how to accurately decode these tricky words if you want them to learn how to read. These digital slides make it easy to guide your class through the whole orthographic mapping process with basically no prep!


These are included as part of membership in The Hive and will become your new favourite go-to for teaching this skill!

Play Simple Word Games

Simplify the learning of tricky words by incorporating play! Kids love to play; this is a great way to build those language skills while having fun with peers! I have many printable activities your students can play independently, with a partner, or in a small group. 

The following activity ideas are designed to be used only after students have already been explicitly taught the word and the ‘heart’ or tricky part of the word. These activities and games will then provide students with repeated exposure to the word, so that they can commit those words to memory. 

1. High Frequency Word Mats

These easy printables have students practise a set of words to complete the path. This is a great way to practice reading those high-frequency words, and as students practise mapping, they should be able to read these words after and faster.


2. High Frequency Word Fidget Spinners

These colourful pages are perfect for students who like to be hands-on! They include both heart and flash words (decodable words students need to know immediately). It's perfect for older primary students as it requires them to segment each word and write a sentence using the word as well.


3. High Frequency Word Review Activities

With over 100 pages of print-and-go phonics activities, this bundle has everything you need to get students practising these essential words every day.


4. Playdoh Word Building Mats

This hands-on activity is great for young students who love making and building. They'll need to complete the mapping process by sounding out the word and noting the irregular "tricky" part, but then they can build the word by forming letters with playdoh. 


5. High-frequency Word Building Cards

Like the mats above, these word-building cards are excellent for students to practise decoding irregular words. Use the pages with the sound boxes for students to break down the sounds in a word, not the letters. You can use any manipulatives with these cards, so they'd be perfect for using as a kindergarten phonics station.


What a fun workshop station! Students will play a game of magnetic fish while practising their high-frequency words. This one is really hands-on and is a lot of fun!


7. Crash Card Game

Select the cards you wish to use and add some CRASH cards (I recommend printing at least 2 x copies of the Crash card page). Place face down in a pile. One student at a time takes a card from the pile. If they can decode the word, they keep the card. If they can’t decode the word, they get someone else in the group to help them read the word, then place at the bottom of the pile. If a CRASH card is pulled out, the student must place all the cards they’ve won back into the pile. The CRASH card remains out of the game. The winner is the person with the most cards at the end of the game.


8. Digital Four In A Row

Pair two students and have them compete in a Connect Four style game to see who knows more tricky words.



Take your phonics instruction to the next level

If you're ready to take your synthetic reading instruction to the next level, check out my free handbook Phonics and Bee-yond. This 100% free 250-page handbook will teach you exactly how to teach your students to learn how to read using evidence-based instructional methods that align with the Science of Reading.