How To Teach ‘Tricky’ Words? Twelve Games That Work


Many of us often find that we have lots of exciting strategies to teach other skills in phonics, but when it comes to teach tricky words it’s just a case of getting out the flaschards again, and hope the children remember them.

How else can you teach tricky words in a more exciting way? It is true that using flashcards is one of the best ways to teach tricky words, as learning to read these words is all about memory and recognition more than anything else. However, there are lots of fun games that can really bring the teaching of tricky words to life, and make it an exciting and more stimulating process. Please read on, to find out more.

First, what are ‘tricky’ words?

Words become ‘tricky’ when they can’t be sounded out using normal phonic methods. E.g. the word ‘dog’ is not tricky, because it can be segmented into its phonic sounds – d-o-g – and then blended correctly into the word. However, if you try to sound out the word ‘go’, you would get ‘g-o’ which sounds like ‘goh’. The crucial thing is that tricky words cannot be sounded out, but must be recognised as a whole word. That is why fun games to help this recognition process are so important.

What order should the tricky words be taught in?

Tricky words are normally taught in an order. This is based upon a mixture of their relative simplicity (with easier words at the start of the list), and also of their frequency in the English language. Children learning the most common words such as ‘I’ and ‘the’. Here is the order of the first few ‘tricky words’:

I , no, to, the, go, into

he, she, we, me, be, you, are, her, was, all, they, my

There are many more after this, but we will stop here. However, this blog post would be relevant for teaching tricky words throughout all the phases.

How to introduce the ‘tricky words’

The standard way to first introduce ‘tricky words’ is to show the children the word, and then try to sound it out. By doing this you demonstrate why it is ‘tricky’ because it will make a silly word. They often find this bit quite funny! Then you tell them what the word really says, and then give them an example of how to use it. So, if the word was ‘they’, you would say something like ‘they all went to the park’. Then get the children to try to come up with a sentence with the word in (some children are better at that than others). When you have taught a few tricky words in this way, it is time to get started on the games using the words they have learned.

The Games

1. Ghost Game

In this game have lots of ‘tricky words’ in a bag or box. A group of children sit in a circle. You would, for example, have five words in the bag, and about three laminated flashcards of each one. You also have one flashcards that has the picture of a ghost on it. The children take it in turns to pick a card out of the bag. They try to read it (e.g. ‘go’). Then they pass the bag to the next child, who picks one out and reads it. When someone picks out the ghost they shout ‘Boo!’ and they are the winner. Everyone else has to put their cards back in the bag, and you start again. This can get a bit rowdy, but is great for nervous anticipation and heightening focus!

2. Magic Camera Game

This is a strategy to help develop visual memory. You show the children a flashcard of a tricky word, or have it up on a screen or board. You get the children to physically take a ‘photo’ of it, using a pretend camera, and store the photo in their brains forever.

3. Round the circle

I think success normally breeds success in phonics, and this next game is great for that. This game works even if you are not sure how to read the words, as long as you stay reasonably alert and can copy a bit off your friend.

Sit the children in a circle, and have lots of copies of flashcards of the words you are teaching (e.g. three lots of ‘go’, ‘to’, ‘no’, ‘the’, and ‘I’). Then you give a child a flashcard and get them to read it (e.g. the word ‘no’). They read the word then pass it to the person next to them, who also reads the word. The children just continue passing the word and reading it. Introduce more cards, so there are several going round the circle. This game is great for cooperation and focus. It is also good for both as practice for more skillful children, and an opportunity for less skillful children to join in without looking silly.

4. Beat the clock round the circle!

This is a version of the previous round the circle game, but with a timer. You say something like ‘Can we pass all of these words around the circle in two minutes?’ Then you let the children get on with it and have a go. Speed challenges are great for many children, as they introduce competition and engagement.

5. Quiz Quiz Swap

This is a classic cooperation game that can be used to teach many different skills. Give the children one ‘tricky word’ flashcard each. Get them to stand up and then go and find a partner. Read your partner’s ‘tricky word’ and then swap with them. Then go and find another partner and repeat. Try to interact with as many partners as you can. This is a good one for practice, and also you will hopefully find that more skillful children start to coach the less able in how to read the words.

6. Secret Spies!

This is a simple way to jazz up the process of showing flashcards to a group. Get the children to sit in pairs. As you show the flashcards, get them to whisper what they are to the child next to them, just like a secret spy!

7. Snap!

This is a ‘tricky word’ version of the classic card game. This is good played in a small group. Have lots of flashcards of a few ‘tricky’ words, and get the children to deal out a pile to whoever is playing (or deal for them if necessary). Then they take turns to put one card on the table and say what they think it is. Then the next player puts one on top, and says it. Continue until you get two the same, and the winner is the person who puts their hand on them first and shouts ‘Snap!’

8. Tricky word domino game

Have some tricky words with domino spots on the back. One child rolls the dice, and then picks up a domino with that number of spots on. They try to read what the tricky word says.

9. Tricky word racetrack

Create a racetrack on a large piece of sugar paper, or card. It will have a track that is broken into square, each one with a tricky word on. It is best at least twenty squares from start to finish. A small group of children each have a counter. The counters start on the start-line. Then they take turns to roll the dice and then jump that number of squares up the track. Whatever word you land on you say the word. The winner is the player that gets to the finish line first.

10. Tricky word bingo

This is a very popular game, that I see a lot in schools. In this game a group of up to about six children each have a bingo board with tricky words on. There is then a pot of ‘tricky’ word flaschards in the middle of the table. They take it in turns to pick a flashcard out of the pot, try to read it and then see if they have it on their board. If they do, then they place it on the word. If not, they put it back. The winner is the first person to fill their board.

11. Jump the lily pads

This is just one of many great ‘tricky’ word games that you can play outside. Have hoops on the ground with ‘tricky’ words written in chalk inside them. There are many games you can play. You can play a game like the ‘racetrack’ game described before. Roll a big dice and then jump down the hoops until you get to the correct pad and say the word. The winner is the first person to get to the end.

Children find it quite good fun just jumping down the lily pads and saying the words. You can also throw things like beanbags into the hoops and try to say the word that you hit.

12. Against the clock!

Speed and fluency are very important when it comes to reading ‘tricky’ words, and this game is great for developing these qualities. This is good in partners. One child has an egg timer, the other has a pile of tricky words. You have a minute to read as many as you can, then your partner has a go.

Conclusion

I hope this blog post has given you some inspiration for some fun games to play to teach ‘tricky’ words. Most of these games require only minimal preparation, and just a set of flashcards will get you quickly started. Also, these games can be played throughout the phonic phases. Some children will naturally recognise these words much more quickly than others, but if you just keep going and trying to make it fun, hopefully all children will make progress at a rate that is suitable for them.

Martin Williams

Hi, I'm Martin Williams, creator of the Early Impact Learning blog. I'm a preschool and early years teacher of ten years experience, and I also run practical training courses for nurseries and schools.

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