Teaching irregular sight words

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Teaching irregular sight words

Post by Katrina » Tue Apr 14, 2009 4:04 pm

Hello Again. I received so much help with my last question that I thought I'd try another.

Every week my Year 1 daughter brings home from school lists of 'sight' words to memorise and I do my best to help her learn the words to please the teacher, whilst trying not to undermine the synthetic phonics skills I'm teaching at home. With most words, I get her sound out and blend the graphemes she knows from left to right and I tell her the graphemes she hasn't learnt yet (knowing she can't remember them all). But I'm not sure how to deal with irregular words such as 'one', 'two' and 'who', and I'm sure I'll come across more as the year progresses. For example, should I get her sound out /t/ /w/ /o/ and then remember it's pronounced as /t/ /oo/ or do I teach the idea of a silent letter and say that the w is silent and she should read it as /t/ /o/, ignoring the w in the middle?

I hope I'm not sounding too pedantic, but I've found the key to success with my particular child is to be clear, systematic and provide plenty of opportunities to practise.

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Post by mtyler » Tue Apr 14, 2009 4:34 pm


In the end any one of the ways you describe could work. My personal preference is to teach the tricky parts as correspondences: t-wo, o-ne, sh-ou-ld, etc. The reason is no new conceptions of the language have to be taught, these are correspondences, just rare. For some words you can add in some etymology or relations to help with retention. For example, you could point out that the spelling of the number 'two' relates it visually and semantically to the numbers twelve and twenty and the adverb twice. This idea may help some, not others. For the word 'who', there is a group of words in which 'wh' spells /h/: whole, whose, whom, whoever. So it might make sense to teach these along with 'who'.

The concept of silent letters seems simple enough, but it bothers me because some spellings have silent letters and others are letter groups. Why is 'ea' a letter group, but words with 'wr' for the sound /r/ have a silent letter?

Whichever way you decide, having her pronounce the words as written then correctly as she writes the words is a great way to cement the relationship among the sounds and spellings.

Minnesota, USA

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Debbie Hepplewhite
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Post by Debbie Hepplewhite » Tue Apr 14, 2009 6:09 pm

Katrina - I would write the words 'two', 'too' and 'to' on a piece of paper and then add the figure 2 next to the 'two, the word 'also' and 'as well' next to the 'too' and a little sentence like 'I go to the shop' next to the 'to' - and simply engage your daughter in the different spellings and word meanings at the same time.

Talk about the differences in the spellings and work on your daughter recalling which is which.

All of this will highlight the words, their meaning and their different spellings.

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Post by Katrina » Wed Apr 15, 2009 3:28 am

Thank you, I'll try all your suggestions. I'd never even realised the connection between two, twelve, twenty and twice; maybe I once did, but it is long forgotten.

It's school holidays here and I'm making the most of the time I have with my kids. I should be able to try out each idea over the next few days.

It is so gratifying to be able to access sensible, logical teaching advice and experience. Thanks for your time.

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Post by chew8 » Wed Apr 15, 2009 12:52 pm

I don't know whether this counts as 'purely practical', but people may find it useful to know that the irregular spelling of 'two' probably reflects an earlier pronunciation. 500 years ago, Chaucer rhymed 'two' with 'so', and I suspect that he would also have sounded the /w/. There's a famous old Scottish ballad called 'The Twa Corbies' ('The Two Crows'), and Robert Burns also used 'twa' for 'two' 200+ years ago. I think that even in modern times, some broad Scots speakers probably still use the word 'twa', pronouncing it as 'twah'. 'Two' is related not just to 'twelve' and 'twenty', but also to 'twin' and 'between'.

In explaining words with irregular spellings in my voluntary work with children aged 7+ to 8+, I often find it helpful to say something like 'That word looks as if we should pronounce it as .... , and actually that's exactly how people did pronounce it a long time ago. We've changed the way we say it to ....., but we've kept the old spelling'. That, to me, is one kind of good code-based teaching.
Melissa wrote:The concept of silent letters seems simple enough, but it bothers me because some spellings have silent letters and others are letter groups. Why is 'ea' a letter group, but words with 'wr' for the sound /r/ have a silent letter?
One consideration, for me, is the one mentioned above - changes in pronunciation over time. When a letter was once sounded in English but is sounded no longer, I think it's reasonable to call it 'silent'. I believe this is true of the 'w' in words starting 'wr' - apparently there are some old spellings which suggest that people found it difficult to pronounce the combination so sometimes inserted a vowel between the 'w' and the 'r' (e.g. 'weritt' for 'writ'). In some modern languages, words from the same roots as English 'wr' words start with 'wr' or 'vr', pronounced /vr/ in both cases - e.g. German and Dutch 'wringen' ('twist' or 'wring') and Danish 'vrang' ('wrong').

Another consideration is statistics: as I see it, the number of words in which 'ea' is a digraph representing a single sound is vast compared with the number of words in which 'ea' is not a digraph (e.g. 'create', 'react'), so treating 'ea' as a digraph gives us a very good chance of reading unfamiliar 'ea' words correctly on first encounters. By contrast, the number of words of the 'listen' type, where we can treat the 't' either as 'silent' or as part of a digraph for /s/, is very small compared with the number of words where the 's' and the 't' are separately sounded (e.g. 'stop', 'lost', 'piston', 'constant'...), so we have a much better chance of reading 'st' words correctly on first encounters if we sound the 's' and 't' separately than if we treat them as a potential digraph. So my own view is that if one wants to prepare learners to tackle unfamiliar words independently (a high priority for me), there are very good reasons for creating a digraph mindset for 'ea' and good reasons for not creating a digraph mindset for 'st'. Children usually cope very well with words such as 'listen', 'whistle' etc. by sounding out 'literalistically' then 'tweaking'.

I respect the views of those who think differently, however.

Jenny C.

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