Learning to Spell Tricky Words is Challenging!
Using a systematic phonics program, we teach the children how to read and spell using letter-sound correspondence. Learning the code for the English Language starts with the 42-44 fundamental sounds. (What the Science Says About How Kids Learn.) However, as children learn to read, there are words that we need to create phrases and sentences that use irregular spellings. They need to spell tricky words!
How Do We Teach Learners to Read and Spell Tricky Words?
Because English is a combination of many languages, some tricky words remain “rule breakers” and cannot be sounded out (e.g., one, eye, two). Most of the irregular words are tricky until the children learn the opaque alphabet. After learning the transparent alphabet with 42-44 sounds, readers are introduced to alternative spellings. Children are taught things like the CVCe or the ‘magic e’ rule (e.g., make, here, like), the schwa sound, double letters, soft ‘c’ and soft ‘g,’ about silent letters, and alternative spellings for consonants, words endings, and digraphs. English is a complicated opaque language! These alternative spellings are introduced as the children are ready… or as the words arise in writing or reading.
The /ai/ Sound
One example of alternative spellings is the /ai/ sound.
<a> - apron, angle, change <ay> - play, day, away (<i> does not like to be at the end of a word, so <y> helps out!) <ei> - feint, vein, veil <ey> - they, grey, obey <eigh> - eight, neigh, sleigh <et> - ballet, sorbet, buffet (French influence) <ea> - great, break, steak <aigh> - straight (One word uses the <aigh> spelling! Origin: adjectival use of Old English streht.)
Read Tricky Words and then Write Them!
In the meantime, early readers need to identify these words with irregular spelling to read sentences! Therefore, Tricky Words are taught with a look and say approach. The children should learn to read tricky words before they learn to spell them. (24 Ways to Make Learning to Read Sight Words Fun.) They are mostly irregular keywords that are not easy to blend or write by listening to the sounds. It helps children learn each tricky word if they look at the spelling and determine what is irregular or different.
For example; 'was' does not have an /a/ sound in the middle, it has the /o/ sound! 'she' uses the <e> spelling of /ee/ 'they' uses the <ey> spelling of /ai/
Identifying the sounds in a word that are not part of the transparent alphabet seems to jog the memory, and they learn to say the words correctly. Mark those parts of the word in a different color. Eventually, they learn to recognize the word immediately.
It is a good idea to associate similar tricky words as kids are learning to spell them. (e.g., he, she, me, be, we; come, some; could. should, would)
The main aim is to get the children to learn to read and spell with automaticity and fluency. AND… I believe MOTIVATION is the key! Have fun learning to spell tricky words! Everyone is different. If one approach doesn’t work, try another!
1. Print it in the Air!
Air writing is a great way to practice tricky words. Talk about letter formation and avoid stick and stone letters! Say, “Let’s spell ‘go,’ g-o, ‘go.’ (Optional: You may choose to provide letter printing directions as each letter is created.)
2. Print the Word on your Palm or Someone’s Back!
Say the word ‘one.’ Print the letters o-n-e. (Remember to say each letter as the students print them. Say the finished word, “one.”)
3. Be a Detective Game
Use a whiteboard. “Let’s spell ‘the.’ The teacher will spell the word on the whiteboard. BUT, the word may be misspelled (i.e., the). Is it correct? Why? Why not? Get the kids thinking about their thinking! With enough knowledge, children can sound out tricky words. Remember to look at the parts of the word you know. Variation: The teacher prints two words on the whiteboard and states the word is ‘the,’ then asks, “Which is the correct spelling?” (teh, the)
4. Find the Missing Letter
Use sound cards, a whiteboard, or a chalkboard. Print a tricky word. Turn the board away and then erase a letter. What’s missing? Who can fill in the missing letter or letter combination?
5. Mix and Fix
Find a partner. Partner A will use a flashcard as a model to make a tricky word from magnetic letters, tiles, or Can Do Cubes. Partner B will check the word against the model, then mix it up for Partner A to re-create. Does partner A want to do it without the flashcard? Remember to offer support. Scaffold the learning in a safe, confidence-building manner. Use the flashcard to help if needed. Do 3 words, then switch partners. Some partners will get 2 or 3 sets completed. Some groups will only do one set. That’s ok… because they are learning.
6. Spell Tricky Words with Various Media
Use letters cut out of a magazine or newspaper, letter tiles, magnetic letters, stamps, play-dough, or wiki sticks to spell tricky words. Print the words in shaving foam, rice, or flour. Try stringing letter beads. You might want to use flashcards, letter-sound cards, or playing cards. Try printing the letters on clothes pegs and ask the children to Peg the Word on a short classroom clothesline.
7. Use Different Tools to Create Words!
Use the Sight Word cards at the literacy or craft center. Paint words. Use Q-tips, markers, pencil crayons, crayons, pens, glitter, glue. Make a word collage!
8. Sidewalk Chalk
Print as many tricky words as you can on the blacktop with sidewalk chalk.
9. Water Writing
Guess my word before it goes! Use a wet paintbrush to spell a tricky word. Option: Chalk a large patch on the chalkboard. Take the wet paintbrush and have the kids paint the tricky word over the chalk.
10. Graffiti Board
Everyone prints as many tricky words throughout the day as they can on a table, door, or floor covered with a large sheet of paper. Duplicates are welcome! Talk about the board at the end of the day. What words do you know? Can you find two that are the same?
11. Coffee Filter Magic
Print a tricky word with colored markers on a coffee filter. Check the word to make sure that it is correct. Read the word. Then, spray the filter with water and create word art!
12. Magic Words – White Crayon
Print (or trace) sight words with a white crayon on a blank piece of white paper. Add a watercolor or a paint wash design to the page. Watch the words magically appear. Or…print one or more tricky words onto a napkin with a colored crayon. Fold the napkin over. Place the napkin in water and watch the tricky word appear!
13. Cheer a Word
The teacher leads the cheer. A sight word is printed where everyone can see it. Say the word ‘your.’ Cheer the word. Say, “Give me a y” – y! “Give me an ‘o’ – o!” Then, “Give me a ‘u’ – u!” “Give me an ‘r’ – r! “Spell it… y-o-u-r” ” What did you spell?” Your! Use the Big Letter Flashcards!
14. Chant a Word
A tricky word is printed where everyone can see it. Let’s chant the word ‘one.’ As the students and teacher spell one o-n-e, different actions are taken. After spelling the word, everyone cheers by raising their fist into the air and says the tricky word “one”!
Options as you spell the word:
- Be a Chorus Line and kick forward across your body, alternating feet with each letter name.
- Push it to the Ceiling – both palms face upwards and move up with each letter name.
- Jump It! Jump up with each letter name.
- Salt and Pepper Your Fries. Shape your hand like a saltshaker. Pretend to shake salt and pepper on your fries with one hand as a letter is spoken, then use the other hand. Don’t forget to raise your arm and cheer the word after you spell it!
- Punch it Out! Hold your arms at your side with elbows bent and fists clenched. Punch out the word. Push your arm across your body as each letter is called out – alternate arms.
- Bounce a Word – Bounce a ball for each letter as you spell the word. Throw the ball into the air and catch it as you say the word.
15. Scrambled Egg Hunt
This can be a center activity or simply an egg hunt. This time the children find a tricky word that has been printed on a sticky note, then cut up into its component letters and placed into a dollar store plastic egg. The student’s task is to determine what tricky word is created with the letters! (They may reference a word wall or personal word wall as needed.)
16. Make and Read Words From a List
Use a magnetic board. Provide letters needed to make 3-5 words. Using a list of tricky words, spell the words with the magnetic letters and then read them. Find a list of words in Sight Word Printing & Word Sort Cards.
17. Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check
- Preparation: Photocopy the activity sheet
- Cut a file folder into three sections from the side to the crease.
- Place the folder in front of you with the crease to the top.
- Place the activity card into the folder.
- Lift the first section. Look at the word. read it. Then, study the spelling of the word.
- Cover the first section and lift the second column.
- Next, try to print the word as you say it.
- Open the first section. Check your work. Did you spell it correctly?
- If it is spelled correctly… check it! Then, close the flap and move on to the next word.
- If it is misspelled, put a line through it. Cover the second flap. Study the word and then try again.
- After the student has practiced the words, dictate the sentence(s).
18. My Sight Words Printing Book
No lines required! Print the dictated word in 3 sizes! The teacher calls out a word. The class says the word. The teacher and class spell the word as the teacher writes it on a chart. Students are invited to say the word, then spell the word out loud as they print it. First, print the word as small as you can. Then print the tricky word in a normal size. Last, print the word as BIG as you can. Read each word after you print it.
19. Sight Word Partner BINGO
There are several Game Board variations for 3 in a row, 4 in a row, or 5 in a row BINGO games. Choose the one that suits your students.
- Use one colored set of Sight Word Cards.
- Play as a class or divide into small groups.
- Sight Word Partner Bingo is a game where students create the Bingo Card….then share it with a friend to play the game.
- The teacher pulls a sight word card from the deck of cards that have been selected for this game then says the word.
- Then the reader/teacher spells the word. The teacher and the class say the word and then spell it as the teacher prints it on a chart.
- The students repeat the word and then print the word anywhere on their Bingo card. If needed, a student may copy from the teacher’s word.
- After the Bingo card spaces are filled, the Bingo card is shared with a fellow student…who must be able to read the creator’s printing of the words.
- Play continues as a BINGO game. The caller puts the deck of cards face-down, then turns the top card over, and calls out the sight word. When a player has the sight word… a Bingo chip is placed on the word. Play continues until a player gets 3, 4, or 5 in a row. (Depending on the game board.)
- The winner of the game may choose to be the caller of the next game.
Note: A bingo chip may be a coin, a small block, a counter, or a piece of paper. You can also use a bingo dabber or a crayon to mark the card.
20. 90 High Frequency Sight Words Dictionary
Use a personal dictionary. Mark the words that you know. Don’t forget to add words that you want to learn. Look up color words, number words, and choose from 84 common nouns that you may need to write a story.
21. Traditional Word Search
Find the tricky words in a word search puzzle. Check out PuzzleMaker.
Check out WordWall. You may be able to find or create interactive puzzles like Word Search & Crossword Puzzles.
22. Take Home Practice Envelopes
A message to parents may be printed on a label and placed on each envelope, e.g., Dear Families… I am learning to read tricky words. These words are often used when I write a story. I see most of them in stories we read, but they don’t always follow the rules… so they can be tricky! Please use this envelope to store my new words. Let’s learn one word at a time, practice them, and see how many I can remember for grade one! I will try to use them when I write a story! Use the tricky words from the Jolly Phonics Handbook. Optional: You can create your own word list or use the word cards from Sight Word Printing Practice & 99 Sight Words for Sorting Activities.
23. Practice CVCe / Magic ‘e’ Words
Print the CVCe or Magic ‘e’ words on a page of cover stock. Cut the final <e> off of the words. Next, add velcro to the back of each piece. Place the word on a rug (or piece of carpet) about 2-foot x 3 foot in size. Put the CVC words on the rug. Read the word. Add the <e>. What happens? The magic <e> jumps over the single consonant and makes the vowel say its name. (e.g., /o/ becomes /oa/, /i/ becomes /ie/, etc.) What happens when you remove the <e>? Check out Spell and Print: Matic /e/ Words!
24. Box With Words – Say It. Spell It. Write It.
The box is held high. The student picks a word from the box. The player reads the word. (If help is required, the word goes back into the box after the activity.) Spell the word. (The player who picked the word may spell it aloud first, then all players spell the word.) Everyone Prints the Word using the card to jog the memory, if needed… or from memory! Play moves to the next player. The player with the most cards wins the game.
25. Spelling Tricky Words with Big Letters
Using the tricky words that have been taught, create a list of about 5 tricky words to spell. Hand out the Big Letter Alphabet Cards needed to spell the words to the students. (You will re-use some of the letters after the children spell one of the words on the list.) Then, say the first tricky word. The students repeat it. Spell the tricky word. The kids repeat it. Say, “If you have the letters we need in this word, come to the front of the class.”
Option 1. Ask the kids to organize themselves to spell the word. Option 2. Ask one or two children to help organize the students holding the letters to create the tricky word. Repeat saying the word and spelling the word altogether. Then, create the rest of the words following the same pattern. Try to make certain each child has had an opportunity to participate. Cheer the Word!
26. Tracing Tricky Words for Spelling Practice
Trace the hollow letters for each sight word. Say the word. Say the letter names as you trace them. Then, cut the tricky words along the dotted lines. Fold the legal paper into three sections. And finally, use the words you know to create a sentence or phrase! You can draw the nouns or print them!
Thank you to the many people who, over the years, have shared ideas on Pinterest and other media. At the time, I used ideas in the classroom and did not consider that I would write a blog post one day based on my years of experience!
Are you learning to identify tricky words? Check out 24 Ways to Learn to Read Sight Words.
All ideas are welcome! Before you go, I invite YOU to share an idea for learning how to spell tricky words in the comments. We all continue to learn from each other. Thank you!
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