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How to Teach Trick Words and Decodable Words

Image of a student pointing to a sentence scramble with decodable and trick words.

How can I help my students understand the difference between trick words and decodable words?

***Updated 2024 to adhere to current research related to the Science of Reading***

After learning the letter names and sounds in isolation, emergent readers begin to use the alphabetic principle to decode closed syllable words (i.e. words that follow the CVC syllable pattern) such as: cat, dog, and lip. Initially, these readers often over-apply the closed pattern to every word they encounter.  Emergent readers may read like as lick or chop as /k/…/hop/.  

At this initial stage of reading, it is important to teach a limited number of words as ‘trick’ words even if the word is phonetically regular.  A trick word, also known as a heart word, is a word that has an irregular component (i.e. of, the, said). 

Sometimes trick words follow a phonics pattern that has not yet been taught (i.e. vowel digraphs as in the word ‘see‘, or r-controlled as in the word, ‘her‘). Later, as students learn additional syllable types, they decode these words using the phonics pattern.

What is the difference between decodable words, sight words, high frequency words, and trick words?

Decodable Words:  Words that follow a regular phonics pattern (one of the six syllable types) and can be blended or ‘sounded out’.

Sight Words:  Any word (regular or irregular) that an individual has orthographically mapped.

Please Note: You can’t actually “do” an orthographic mapping activity with students. Orthographic mapping is a process that occurs in the brain. Readers utilize the oral language processing area of the brain to connect (or map) the sounds which will they can then transfer to letters (spelling). The spelling (combined with its meaning) is then permanently filed into one’s sight word vocabulary.

High Frequency Words: Words that appear often in text.  High frequency words may follow regular phonics patterns and are decodable (i.e. and, like, get) or they may contain irregular elements (i.e. some, of, was).  Once these high frequency words can be read ‘on sight’, they are then considered sight words.

Trick or Heart Words: Words that have irregular components.  Many high frequency words are trick words. As mentioned in the previous section, these words may follow a ‘not yet‘ pattern.

What strategies can I use to help my students read trick words accurately?

The Science of Reading does not support rote memorization of a large number of high frequency words. Requiring emergent readers to memorize a large bank of words is inefficient and taxes short-term memory.

Providing a visible cue helps readers recognize which words they can decode and which words are trick words.  Sentence Scrambles provide an engaging scaffold to help emergent readers recognize the difference between trick words and decodable words.

What is a “Sentence Scramble”?  

A sentence scramble is a fun, interactive activity used in strategy groups, guided reading groups, or the intervention setting.   The sentence scramble activity supports emergent readers in one-to-one word matching, left-to-right reading progression, simple sentence structure, and recognizing and reading trick words or decodable words.

The following video shows an emergent reader engaging in a sentence scramble activity.

Is there a scaffold I can put in place to help beginning readers recognize the difference between decodable words and trick words?

Marking words in a text to signify a trick word is a helpful tool.  Scanning the page for words students recognize as heart words, and highlighting them with a marker or highlighting tape, can help cue the readers to the different types of words. 

The unmarked words cue the reader to use the tapping and blending strategy to decode the word if they get stuck.

How can I assist readers who are not able to read decodable words or trick words?

Emergent readers need frequent scaffolded opportunities to practice blending decodable words.  They also need repeated exposure to a limited number of high frequency words.  Sentence scrambles offer emergent readers simple texts containing trick words and decodable words.  Limiting the amount of text to one sentence can be very helpful for some early readers.

How can I implement this strategy?

Each of our engaging decodable reader packs includes two ‘Sentence Scrambles’ per book.  Sentence Scrambles are an interactive component that develops print concepts and assists readers in distinguishing between trick words and decodable words.

A set of 10 short vowel decodable books written by Informed Literacy.  These books are designed to help emergent readers distinguish between trick words and decodable words.
These decodable readers include the scaffold of sentence scrambles that help students distinguish between trick words or decodable words.
Decodable Readers Nonfiction Bundle cover. A set of 5 high-interest decodable CVC books designed to help students read trick words and decodable words with accuracy.

What about spelling ‘Heart Words’?

When we first heard about using mapping to spell heart words, it seemed intimidating. However, once we learned the process and tried it out, we realized how effective it can be! We have to be honest….sometimes trick words get…ahem…tricky. Often, we have to look up how to properly map the heart word. Really Great Reading-Heart Word Magic will be your best friend.

It’s also important to note that the ‘not yet’ part depends upon what your students already know. For example, when teaching ‘the’ to kindergartners who haven’t learned about the ‘th’ digraph, both parts are ‘heart parts’. Mapping heart words is an amazing start to teaching irregular words.

Phoneme-Grapheme mapping is a powerful reinforcer whether it’s spelling trick words or decodable words. Writing and connecting sounds is extremely helpful in getting words to ‘stick’ automatically.

This is an image of the cover of our Reinforcing Spelling of Tricks Words or Decodable Words.
This resource is designed to assist students with spelling both irregular and regular words.

It’s important to also note that not every irregular word lends itself to the heart word strategy.

Can I use mnemonic phrases to help my students remember how to spell irregular words?

Just like we do not encourage rote memorization when reading trick or heart words, we do not encourage rote memorization of too many spelling hacks. That said, some mnemonic phrases, when used judiciously, work very well. (see image below for one of our favorites)

The phrase oh you lucky duck helps students remember how to spell the words could, would, and should.
Sometimes a catchy phrase can help students remember the spelling of irregular words.

What about etymology?

Etymology, the study of the origin of words, can be an impactful tool when teaching spelling. Do you know why there’s a ‘g’ in ‘sign’? A sign is a SIGNAL of something. Teaching this snippet of etymological information is a game-changer for some students. If you’re interested in learning more about this, be sure to check out Etymology Online.

Teachers have several choices when it comes to teaching students how to read and spell words. We must choose the method that best suits our individual students as well as the targeted words.

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