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Year 1 and Year 2 Common exception words – How to make them stick

Tricky words are often the most useful for children's reading and writing – so here's how to make them memorable
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By Sue Drury

Last updated 10 June 2020

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Common exception words … red words … tricky words … whatever you call them, it all boils down to the same thing: they do not follow the phonics rules that most pupils have drilled into them when they start reading and writing.

This is rather unfortunate, given that so many Year 1 and 2 common exception words are small, simple words that children will encounter and use frequently from a young age. Just tell yourself that English is a rich and fascinating language with a complex family tree … if that helps.

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What are common exception words?

Make sure you get one thing clear in your mind from the start: these are not spellings where an incorrect grapheme is used to represent the phoneme. A common exception word is not “wrong”. These are words where at least one of the phonemes has a rare or unique relationship with the grapheme it relates to.

While this might seem a rather pedantic distinction, it would be unfortunate for your pupils to get the impression that there is something wrong with the spelling. However, you could describe it as unusual.

Having got that straight, you might want some tips on how to teach common exception words so that they become more sticky than tricky.

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Common exception words – get to know the correct spelling

This may seem a little obvious but it really does help to know just what are the common exception words for your year group. If you’re not sure, you can find them listed in Appendix 1 of the National Curriculum for English, although these might vary slightly from the ones included in whatever programme you use in your school. You can also use our Year 1 and Year 2 word mats, so that you and your pupils can check them at a glance. Incidentally, for Years 3 and above, the emphasis changes to “statutory spellings”, which is how we refer to them in our resources for those age groups.

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Put the word list on show

One of the main ways to get the spelling of these words to stick is to confront pupils with them as much as possible. Regular reading of quality texts is a key factor in familiarising children with them, especially as they will pop up so frequently. However, it might also help to have them on display on the walls or on their tables. We have included a range of posters and word mats in our Year 1 and Year 2 common exception words packs to save you the bother of making them yourself.

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Key Stage 1 tricky word hunt

The next question is, can they pick the words out of a text? This is something you could do as part of guided reading or any activity that involves sharing a text. Alternatively, you could use the specially written sentences included as part of our Year 1 and Year 2 spelling packs.

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Year 1 and Year 2 common exception words activities

Our brains like to make links and look for patterns. Even though these words have unusual spelling patterns, many of them can be arranged into groups which, like so many families, share their eccentricities. In Year 1, a good example would include be, me, he, she and we, where the long ee sound is provided by a single letter e. Similarly, in Year 2 there’s the old, cold, gold, hold and told family. Why not challenge kids to see if they can make any other such groupings and provide a rationale for their decisions?

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Teaching common exception words – make it memorable

Use mind-grabbing strategies to help tricky spellings stick. Most people will be familiar with mnemonic gems such as big elephants can always understand small elephants for because. Why not think of your own for other words? Or you could use clever catchphrases to emphasise a spelling pattern. For example, you could say something like, “O, u sound unusual,” to illustrate the u sound of the o-e split digraph in words like come, some and love.

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Make it a spelling game

As you are no doubt well aware, you can often disguise learning (yuk!) as playing (hooray!). Why not challenge your pupils to find the odd word out, being the one that is not spelled correctly? Give them anagrams of common exception words to unscramble. You could even make a word search – there are websites that can do this for you.

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Handwriting practice

Another way to get these words ingrained is to take the physical route. As well as standard approaches such as look, cover, write, check, why not use writing common exception words as handwriting practice? You’ll find helpful worksheets for this, neatly and conveniently laid out in our spelling packs.

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Common exception word assessment worksheet

Different people have different ideas about the merits of testing. One thing is certain, however: pupils are going to end up getting tested anyway. If you’re comfortable with the idea, our common exception words pack includes ready-made sheets for assessing their ability to both read and spell these tricky little anomalies. The resource can be used either in a formal test situation, or as an ongoing record to complete during guided reading or routine assessment of their writing.

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Put common exception words in a sentence

There’s no point learning to spell them unless they can also apply that knowledge in a practical context. Of course, you could make this a specific requirement of suitable writing tasks but you might be interested to know that, through our word packs and spelling workouts, we offer a number of attractive resources that provide ready-made activities to do the hard work for you.


There, that wasn’t so tricky was it? Hopefully, these tips will have stopped you from seeing red when it comes to common exception words.

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