The 100 most annoying words

I’ve been working with a little girl in her second year of school who is taking a long time to understand sounds and letters, so I’ve scheduled some extra one-to-one time with her each week.

Last year, she had pretty much nailed the “short” vowels (“a” as in “hat”, “e” as in “red”, “i” as in “sit”, “o” as in “not” and “u” as in “fun”) in little, three-sound words. However, her responses were very slow, so I was hoping to get her faster and more automatic this term, before working on longer words and extra spellings next term.

Suddenly yesterday, whenever I asked her to write a word containing the “short” vowel sound “u”, she wrote “a”. I asked for “sun” and she wrote “san”, I asked for “duck” and she wrote “dack”, I asked for “nut” and she wrote “nat”. Argh. What happened?

The Golden Words

She has a really lovely teacher, who is also very concerned about her slow progress, and who mentioned in passing in the hallway that she’d sent home the “Golden Words” for the family to work on.

The “Golden Words” are the first 12 “sight” words in a high-frequency-words-based literacy scheme called the Magic 100 Words, which is popular in my local schools, and seems to be recommended to undergraduate teachers as their first literacy priority. The words are “a”, “and”, “be”, “I”, “in”, “is”, “it”, “of”, “that”, “the”, “to” and “was”.

So that’s what happened. The child has been practicing reading the word “a” as “uh”, and now she sees the letter “a” in a word and says “uh” too. “Uh” as in “drat”.

I’m sure once I have a chance to discuss this with the teacher and send home some different things to practice, this student will be back on track. However, it would be great if teachers graduated with something less confusing as their early literacy starting point. Think about what sounds the letter “a” represents just in the 12 “Golden Words” above. There are three different sounds – “uh” as in the word “a” (I wish people would say “ay” – click here for an earlier blog post about this), “a” as in “that” and “o” as in “was”. Totally, totally confusing for beginners.

The 100 Most Annoying Words

The mother of another young client told me the other day that they have started calling the 100 most frequent words “The 100 Most Annoying Words”. I think this is brilliant and will be calling all high-frequency word list this from now on.

I count a total of 74 different letter-sound correspondences in the Magic 100 Most Annoying Words:

Letter/spelling Sounds example word(s)
a Unstressed vowel a, about
a “a” as in cat and, that, as, at, had, have, an, has, back
a “a” as in want was, what, want
a “a” as in “wall” all, call
a…e “ay” as in name came, made, make
ai “e” as in red said
are “are” as in are are (the only word like this)
b “b” as in big be, but, by, big, back, been, about, before
c “c” as in cat can, came, call, come, could
ch “ch” as in chip much, which
ck “ck” as in sock back
d “d” as in dog and, had, said, do, did, old, down, made, could
e “e” as in met get, them, well, went, when, then
e “ee” as in me be, he, we, me, she, before
e unstressed vowel the
ee “ee” as in bee see, been
eir “air” as in their their
er “er” as in “term” her
er unstressed vowel over, other
ere “ear” as ere here
ere “air” as in there there, where
ere “er” as in were were (the only word like this)
ew “you” as in few new
ey “ay” as in grey they
f “f” as in fit for, if, from, before, first
f “v” as in of of (the only word like this)
ff “f” as in cuff off
g “g” as in get go, big, get
h “h” as in hit had, have, he, her, his, has, him, here
i “i” as in him in, is, it, his, with, if, big, did, him, into, this, will, little, which
i “I” as in hi I
i…e “I” as in time like
igh “I” as in night right
ir “er” as in her first
j “j” as in jam just
k “k” as in kit like, make, look
l “l” as in lip old, like, only, little, look
le “l” as in cattle little
ll “l” as in tell all, well, call, will
m “m” as in mum me, my, him, came, made, much, them, come, make, must, some, more
n n as in not and, in, not, on, one, an, no, new, been, into, went, when, only, then, want
o “o” as in on of, not, on, off, old
o “ooh” as in do to, do, who, into
o “oh” as in go so, go, no, over, only
o “u” as in son other
oo “oo” as in book look
o…e “u” as in done one, come, some
or “aw” as on corn for, or
ore “aw” as in tore before, more
ou “ooh” as in soup you
ou “ou” as in out our, out, about
oul “oo” as in would could
our “or” as in court your
ow “ou” as in “cow” now, down
r “r” as in rat from, right
r unstressed vowel our
s “s” as in sit said, so, see, just, this, must, first
s s as in is is, was, as, his, has, some
sh “sh” as in “shop” she
t “t” as in top it, that, to, at, but, not, get, out, into, just, went, must, what, about, first, right, want
th “th” as in thin with
th “th” as in this that, the, they, them, this, then, other, their, there
tt “t” as in matt little
u “u” as in “cut” but, up, just, much, must
v “v” as in vet over
ve “ve” as in sleeve have
w “w” as in wet was, we, with, well, went, were, will, want
wh “w” as in what when, what, where, which
wh “h” as in “whom” who
wo “ooh” as in two two (the only word like this)
y “y” as in yes you, your
y “y” as in my by, my
y “y” as in funny only
nothing “w” as in “one” one

The list includes some words with doozy irregular spellings, and sometimes these are the only example of that spelling e.g. the “ai” in “said” is on the list, but not the “ai” in “rain” and “hail”.

However, most of the words are regularly-spelt, once you understand how major spellings work in different slots in a syllable. So there’s no need to memorise these words holus-bolus. Children just need to be taught each pattern in an efficient, systematic way, ensuring it is generalisable to thousands of other words. When they meet an irregular in a book, e.g. the “oul” in “could”, you can just say, “That word has a funny spelling for the sound ‘oo'”. The two other sounds in this word are spelt utterly regularly, so children who can decode 95% of the surrounding words aren’t generally tripped up by this.

I’d love to throw all the different versions of 100 Most Annoying Words lists out, or at least relegate them to somewhere in the curriculum well beyond the time when children are taught how to work with the basic code of our language (click here if you want to download a free picture book to help your beginner grasp this). Such lists give too many small children the completely wrong idea about how our spelling system works.


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