What happens when you get two thousand years of history, regularly add words from different languages around the world, sprinkle with weird ideas about silent letters and garnish with accumulated mistakes from various scribes along the way? The answer is English. Well, English spelling anyway.
With major contributions from Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Norman French, the English language offers a wonderfully rich and extensive range of words with which to express ourselves.
The payoff is an approach to spelling that is riddled with inconsistencies. Yes, there are plenty of words where the spelling follows straightforward grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs). However, there are also many that do not. That is why we have our statutory words lists.
What are tricky words?
Even though the actual lists are aimed at Years 3 and 4 and Years 5 and 6, don’t forget that there are many words which pupils are expected to learn at Key Stage 1. Just because they are called common exception words, red words or tricky words, depending on your phonics scheme, that doesn’t mean they are any less of a requirement than the statutory lists. You’ll find them in Appendix 1 of the English National Curriculum. In fact, it’s a good idea to keep this appendix close at hand. Why not keep it as a bookmark on your laptop as well as having a hard copy in your planning files?
High frequency words
Incidentally, common exception words are not the same as the high frequency words that some schools focus on, although there is a great deal of overlap. High frequency words are simply the 100 words that feature most frequently in the English language. It’s just a coincidence that so many of them have unusual GPCs.
Statutory word lists for kids
The Year 3/4/5/6 word lists are sets of 100 words that are deemed either to appear regularly in primary pupil’s writing or are frequently misspelled. That is typically because they have at least one atypical spelling pattern. That doesn’t mean they are the only words you should teach. Nevertheless, it is important that you cover them adequately.
Scrutinising tricky word teaching
Learning spelling well is more than just look, cover, write, check, especially when it comes to tricky words. There are plenty of other spelling strategies that you should consider. For example, give your pupils the chance to look at the statutory spelling words in detail. Are there any roots, suffixes or prefixes to consider? Can they make links with other words that might share a common root? What are the parts of the words that could cause problems. Above all, what do they mean? There’s no point learning to spell a word if you’re not going to use it and you’re not going to use it if you don’t understand it.
Our Year 5/6 SSW packs are specially designed to help pupils to look at statutory spelling words in detail. Taking the words two at a time, the worksheets encourage children to read, spell and understand them, including identifying them in context and even using them for handwriting practice.
How to teach tricky words
You can reinforce this familiarity with the statutory spelling words with our Y5/6 SSW revision pack. This resource includes seven fun word search puzzles covering the entire 100-word list. For each puzzle, there is one version that lets you know which words you are seeking. If you have a learner who would benefit from a bit more of a challenge, there is a different version which doesn’t specify which of the SSWs are hidden within the grid.
Tricky words games – Crosswords
As we all know, learning is easier when you turn it into a game and this ‘spoonful of sugar’ approach can also be applied to the statutory spelling lists. There is something irresistible about a crossword so we have created sets of crosswords where the answers to the clues are the SSWs.
The beauty of of these puzzles, of course, is that they don’t just rely on you knowing what the word is – you have to understand what they mean too. Best of all, they absolutely depend on the you being able to spell the words correctly because if you don’t, the words won’t always fit.
Our packs contain six crosswords for Years 3/4 and another six for years 5/6. Not that you’ll need them, but we do include answer sheets too, just in case.
Tricky word games – Hangman
Remember, there are plenty of other ways you can turn learning the SSWs into a game. Hangman is always an engaging if gruesome favourite. Just make sure that you have an agreed number of ‘lives’ or pattern for the gallows. That last thing you want is for it to turn into an argument!
Testing tricky words
Ultimately, the main purpose of teaching tricky words is that pupils can go into the world able to spell confidently and correctly (helping with reading too). Therefore, you should not allow spelling to fall off the radar when you are marking independent writing. Make a point of looking for SSWs that your pupils need to brush up on.
However, you do also need to prepare pupils for the end of KS2 SATs. Although spelling tests have limited teaching value – you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it, as they say – you do need to make sure they are familiar with the format of the GPS spelling test, so give them a few practices.
Revising tricky words
Finally, remember that the end of KS2 tests are designed to test the whole of the key stage, not just the last two years. Therefore, if you are a Year 6 teacher, make sure that your class are still confident with the words in the Year 3/4 SSWs. They can and do show up in the end of key stage tests and you don’t want your class to still find them tricky.