Do you ever stop to wonder why the number two is written with a ‘w’ or why we pronounce the words ‘paid’ and ‘said’ differently?

If you do, the chances are that – like me – you find the complexities of the English spelling system intriguing and absorbing. The chequered history of this country leaves its legacy in our rich language, although the wealth of vocabulary it bequeaths can be the root of the spelling difficulties that some children experience.

With approximately 40 phonemes (speech sounds) versus 250 possible grapheme correspondences in the English language, it is certainly a rather involved process to master all the possible variations.


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To many, the English spelling system may seem hostile and unpredictable – and consequently difficult to teach. But is it as capricious as it appears?

A study by Hanna, Hanna, Hodges and Rudorf (Phoneme-grapheme correspondences as cues to spelling improvement, 1966), concluded that only four per cent of commonly used words have spellings that cannot be predicted by their pronunciation. Unfortunately, this percentage does represent words in the highest usage. 

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The most frequently used words in the English language are typically those that refer to everyday objects, activities, or emotions, and these have always been part of our vocabulary; imported words are generally synonyms or words that add an extra layer to our basic communication.

Of the most common 100 words used in the English language, all of them have Anglo-Saxon origins. Unfortunately, pronunciation changes more rapidly than spelling, so the encryption of many of Old English words often corresponds to articulation long since disappeared.

Clues can sometimes be found in other, similarly spelled, words. If you think back to my earlier mention of paid and said, we can spot the same tense changes in the spellings of pay and paid, and say and said, and begin to guess how said may have been pronounced in ages past. 

While it is acknowledged that the root to successful reading and spelling acquisition lies in a systematic phonics approach, we don’t get too far before we bump into words that children need to use, but which do not fit into the correspondences they have learned.

The words no, go and so, for example, are not accessible when at first you only know the o grapheme making an ‘o’ phoneme, as in hot and dog. Some schemes call such words ‘tricky’ words, others ‘red words’, and the National Curriculum refers to them as ‘common exception words’ (CEWs). 

These irregular spellings are taught alongside more readily decodable words and added gradually to keep cognitive load manageable for young children. Therefore, by the time pupils leave Year 1, they should have been taught to read and spell the first 100 highest frequency words, some of which do not match grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) taught so far.

If you have children in your class who are still struggling with the spelling of any – or all – of these words, it’s worth looking back to your school’s chosen SSP scheme and noting the order of teaching for these words (there is little variation on this between the schemes). Prioritise pupils’ learning of these words in that same order, as these are likely to be the ones they will need most in their writing.

Year 1 common exception words

Here is the list of Year 1 common exception words that appear in the National Curriculum spelling appendix: 

The, a, do, to, today, of, said, says, are, were, was, is, his, has, I, you, your, they, be, he, me, she, we, no, go, so, by, my, here, there, where, love, come, some, one, once, ask, friend, school, put, push, pull, full, house, our

Year 2 common exception words

The Year 2 spelling appendix presents us with another tranche of common exception words that children should master by the end of the year:

Door, floor, poor, because, find, kind, mind, behind, child, children*, wild, climb, most, only, both, old, cold, gold, hold, told, every, everybody, even, great, break, steak, pretty, beautiful, after, fast, last, past, father, class, grass, pass, plant, path, bath, hour, move, prove, improve, sure, sugar, eye, could, should, would, who, whole, any, many, clothes, busy, people, water, again, half, money, Mr, Mrs, parents, Christmas

Note: ‘children’ is not an exception to what has been taught so far but is included because of its relationship with ‘child’.

KS1 spelling list

It is worth mentioning that the exact contents of these lists are not statutory, and the National Curriculum notes mention that other words could be included depending on the phonics and spelling programmes you use.

Personally, I would add the word does and the numbers one, two, four and eight to Year 1 for instance. Where would you include the spelling of Monday and Wednesday?

You should also pay attention to where these words are taught in your phonics scheme, as some programmes will introduce some of these earlier or not at all.

One of the reasons that this is not a statutory list is that some of these words are perfectly regular in certain regional accents whereas their pronunciation in others renders them difficult to encode. For example, past, last, fast, path and bath are not exceptions in accents where the a is pronounced /æ/, as in cat.

Tricky words

As the children are taught the less common spelling alternatives to phonemes, many of the ‘tricky’ words become logical. The spellings of love, eight and Christmas are all unpicked alongside month, weigh and chorus in Year 3/4 spelling objectives, for example.

However, there remains within that list of common exception words many high frequency words whose encryption seems to fly in the face of any spelling rule or convention. The labelling is apt. Perhaps because of their anomalies, these words will often present difficulties to children throughout their time in primary education. 

But why is it important to support learners to master these seemingly unconquerable words? Part of the answer lies in building children’s overall accuracy and self-esteem.

As these words represent such a high proportion of words commonly used, a child’s writing will appear littered with mistakes if they haven’t learned enough of them.

Children are generally perceptive of their own strengths and weakness, and a child who makes errors in high frequency words will often take a disproportionately dim view of their capabilities.

Another issue is that if children have not mastered these often-used words, cognitive load is taken up with encoding and this interrupts other transcriptional and compositional skills, making writing harder for the child.

With that in mind, here are some practical ways that you can support children to internalise these spellings:

Teach often

Frequent usage should suggest frequent teaching and yet these words are perhaps not revisited enough in lessons. KS2 pupils still need to be taught strategies to support them to learn and remember these words.

Gaps in KS1 spelling knowledge are often a blocker to meeting the end of Year 6 expectations for writing. Testing alone will not help, but spaced recall is important. Include these words on a regular basis so that they move from the short-term memory to the long-term memory and become locked in.

Isolate the tricky part

Even the most exceptional spellings have some predictable GPCs. Begin by asking the child to identify these parts of the word – the s and d in said, for instance. Map these onto a phoneme frame and add in the tricky part, perhaps in an alternative colour, like this: 

S AI D

Now support pupils to focus on remembering the irregular part, perhaps using some of the following strategies:

Explore etymology

I find that children are often as fascinated as I am by the word origins that influence seemingly random spellings. At the beginning of this article, I referenced the odd spelling of the number two.

Whilst its homophone to has the alternative variant of the oo phoneme (/uː/) spelled with one o, there is seemingly no logic to this word having a silent w in the middle. Not until you explore the history of this word, that is.

From the Old English words twa and twegen representing the number that is ‘one more than one’, this number shares roots with other European languages including dwa in Polish, två in Swedish and zwei in German. The word twain has still just about survived in English, but we no longer hear the w sound that used to be pronounced in two. However, when we consider other words that are analogous (such as twelve, twenty, twin, twice and between) we can make an exciting comparison that may help to secure the spelling of this word.

Find analogies

When teaching common exception words, try to group them with other words that share the target grapheme such as:

he, me, she, we

could, should, would

wild, mild, child/ kind, find, mind

This enables children to spot patterns in words and secure several words at once.

Help pupils to explore connections in meaning, too, especially when there can be distraction homophones in the mix: here, there and where all have a link to position which might help children trying to select the correct spelling option, and the words the, them and they might support the spelling of the latter miscreant.

Explore mnemonics

The key to word mnemonics is to keep them simple and useful. Let’s take the word because as an example. Children may remember that ‘big elephants can’t always use small exits’, but what if their spelling of use begins with the letter y or the word always is also tricky for them?

And pupils may find it hard to hold onto all seven words in that mnemonic while they construct the target word. Instead, focus on the tricky part of the word: ‘ause’ in this case. Try to include the word in the mnemonic to lessen cognitive load, e.g. a memory trigger for the word people could be: people eat omelettes, people like eggs. Sometimes a rhyme can help as well, such as ‘there is no ‘a’ in they’.

Grow automacity

‘Sight’ learning is not a helpful strategy. Because there are so many words, often very similar in appearance, most children won’t be able to memorise too many spellings in this way.

However, overlearning, with a view to automaticity, is the key. Constant revisiting and writing of these words will cement the spelling, creating an unconscious habit that is the result of visual familiarity and muscle memory.

So, set pupils challenges such as ‘How many times can you write the word in joined handwriting in one minute?’ or ‘Can you spell this word with your eyes closed?’ It can be fun to set passwords on IT equipment as commonly misspelled words to encourage accuracy!

Monitor constantly

Do you sometimes wonder why there are certain words that children always seem to misspell? The answer is linked to the point above; if a word is used frequently and misspelled from the outset, it won’t be long before a mistake turns into a permanent habit.

To prevent this, ensure errors in high frequency words are addressed promptly. If a Year 1 child spells the word they with an a five times in one week – or even in one piece of writing – and it isn’t picked up immediately, the chances are you’ll still be battling to undo that muscle memory in Year 5!

Point out these inaccuracies from the outset and then have high expectations as a school for the correct spelling of this word moving forward. 

Self-regulation

Children need to take responsibility to ‘seek and destroy’ any words they should now spell correctly.

I like to have a list of words for each year group, mistakes from which are no longer acceptable or ‘past their sell-by date’. Words on this list become ‘non-negotiable’ and should be monitored by the pupil and self-corrected.

Pupils can make a little bookmark for their writing books with a list of up to six words that they need to check. Once they have mastered a word, they can remove it from the bookmark and add another challenging word. Find free downloadable templates for KS1 and KS2 bookmarks from Plazoom here.

Allow time for ‘proofing pitstops’ at frequent intervals where children can check for misspellings and missing punctuation. It is much easier for pupils to spot these in smaller chunks of writing than to wade through a finished composition.

Provide common exception word lists and mats to assist the children with their independence.

Have fun with words

Above all else, it is important that children learn to enjoy words and spelling; to see the process as a fun code to crack rather than a battle to fight.

In the words of the eminent linguist David Crystal, “The story of the English writing system is so intriguing, and the histories behind individual words so fascinating, that anyone who dares to treat spelling as an adventure will find the journey rewarding.”


First 100 high-frequency words

The, that, not, look, put, and, with, then, don’t, could, a, all, were, come, house, to, we, go, will, old, said, can, little, into, too, in, are, as, back, by, he, up, no, from, day, I, had, mum, children, made, of, my, one, him, time, it, her, them, Mr, I’m, was, what, do, get, if, you, there, me, just, help, they, out, down, now, Mrs, on, this, dad, came, called, she, have, big, oh, here, is, went, when, about, off, for, be, it’s, got, asked, at, like, see, their, saw, his, some, looked, people, make, but, so, very, your, an

Via highfrequencywords.org


Michelle Nicholson is a teaching and learning adviser for Herts for Learning and the author of ESSENTIALspelling.