Games for tricky words

Hi all. Last week I blogged about phonics – how to make phonics fun through games. This week, we need to look closely at the so-called ‘tricky’ words. These types of words used to be called ‘high frequency’ by schools because they account for a huge proportion of the words featured in children’s early reading books. We are talking here about words such as : and, but, the, are, is, was, they, in, of, you, said….and many more. Why are these types of words tricky?

Well, let’s consider this phonic group first: cat, dog, ship, much, bunch, clean, soft. As children learn to read, they build up these types of words phonetically letter by letter (well before the chunking stage I discussed last week). Most words follow the rules of phonics so that children can decode them at the early learning stage of reading. This is what phonics means – rules for decoding letter/ sound patterns.

Now consider this group: are, said, they, you, your, be, me, could, should. We see immediately that these words are different. If we try to decode them phonetically – we end up with some very strange sounding words. There are about 200 or so words in this ‘tricky’ group that children learn to read and spell as whole words. They learn to spell them using the Look, Say, Cover, Say, Write, Check (LSCSWC) approach. Basically, a child looks at the word, notices its tricky bit (for example the ‘ai’ in said), says the word, covers it, says it from memory, writes it, then checks it.

A basic rule – NEVER let your child try to decode a tricky word phonetically – it doesn’t work. Let your child see the word, over and over again, and commit the word to memory. Okay, now for some games that will help your child to commit tricky words to memory. The games are not new – we talked about them in the context of phonics. But they are fun!

Snap or pairs: simply write each tricky word on card, about 4 or 5 of each word, in a pack of perhaps 5 or 6 different tricky words. The trick is to get a reasonable chance of getting a ‘snap’ and to retain the fun element. So if ‘are’ is written on 5 cards out of 30 – there is a one in six chance of a snap or pair – the same probability as playing with 1-6 numbered dice to get a six. Increase the ‘chance’ factor to one in five, or one in four, if your child needs to be more engaged with a quick win.

Phrases: Get your child to think about how these two sets of words make meaning. Using two different colours of cards to separate each group, you might write some tricky words and phonic words: for example – the, are, their, we, were, said, to, my, they, could, go – with perhaps, on the phonic cards – cup, sitting, happy, sun, milk, picture, table, running, like. How many two (or three) word phrases can your child make in five seconds? The milk…. My milk…. We are running… They are running….They go… My picture… Their table…. They could go…. This activity helps your child to see which words make sense as a group.

Mix tricky with phonic- Play with the two sets of cards as a game – again as snap or pairs. When two in the same category meet, it’s a snap. This game helps children to see the difference between these types of words and to read them differently.

Play as Happy Families – Using the same mixed sets of cards, who is the first player to make a three word phrase (family of three) out of the single cards picked up in turn?
What about meaning? We want young children to see the essential difference between these two sets of words – tricky and phonic, not just for reading and spelling, but when they are reading for meaning. Tricky words are meaningless – in the sense that their meaning only emerges from the meaningful words bound with them. Take the word ‘said’ or ‘the’. Can you form an image from either? No. Now take the words : cup, sun, drink, run – we can easily form an image from these. So basically, tricky words have no inherent meaning – they support more meaningful words in order for phrases and sentences to be grammatically correct and make sense.

So there we are – tricky and phonic. Two sets of words that your young child must learn to read and spell differently – if he is to make sense of reading as a whole.

More fun activities next week. Meanwhile all you need to know is out there in my books for parents. Start by finding out WHAT your child learns and HOW. My books will help – Support Your Child with SEND (Book 1) and at successive Key Stages (Books 2 to 4), by Sylvia Edwards, are available from Lulu in printed form, and from Amazon. Visit my website: Parents: Help YOUR child succeed.

Good luck.

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