Category Archives: hard words

When digraphs ain’t digraphs

When working on decoding and spelling two-syllable words with a student, I often use the TRUGS deck 4 cards, which include the word “mishap”.

Invariably, my students parse this as “mish-ap”, rhyming the first syllable with “fish”.

At first this made me want to get out my correction tape and replace “mishap” with a word that would give them more immediate syllable-parsing success.

Then I realised “mishap” provides a perfect opportunity to discuss how spellings that look like digraphs aren’t always digraphs, so we also need to think about what word parts mean and how letters might work separately when tackling unfamiliar words. Continue reading

Try learning a new alphabet yourself

I have a quick workshop activity which gives adults a small taste of what it’s like for children beginning to learn to use a new alphabet.

I’ve decided to make it available to my gentle blog-readers to try out with colleagues, at workshops etc., to help make the point that learning new, abstract symbols is very difficult.

You can download the worksheets for this activity here. The pictures are free-to-use ones from the internet, thanks so much to the generous photographers.

The activity takes about five minutes. There are four tasks:

Task 1

task-1Filling gaps in sentences by listening to them being read aloud and copying the relevant high-frequency words. Five-year-olds are often asked to memorise the 12 “golden” words used (a, an, be, I, in, is, it, of, that, the, to, was) as one of their first literacy tasks when starting school. Typically adults find they can do this task quickly and without having to think very hard. Continue reading

Dissing, choosing and teaching sight words

The Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy Network (DDOLL) has recently been having an interesting discussion about whether systematic explicit phonics advocates have been dissing sight words too much. Not everything is about me, but I think I might be one of the possible-over-dissers – see for example my blog posts here, here and here.

Anne Castles blogA few days ago, Professor Anne Castles of Macquarie University, who’s on the Learning Difficulties Australia (LDA) Council with me, wrote a guest blog post on the Read Oxford website called “Are sight words unjustly slighted?”, which I encourage you to read.

Prof Castles has a brain like a planet and a string of relevant publications longer than both my arms, so we need to take what she says seriously.

What is a sight word?

To Prof Castles, for teaching purposes, sight words are specific tricky words that children are likely to encounter regularly, taught with a focus on the word level rather than the sound-letter relationships. However, she notes that “sight words” are often confused with the process of reading words “by sight” rather than having to sound out every word. Continue reading

Predictable or repetitive texts

I've made a new video about predictable texts, sometimes called repetitive texts.

These are short books typically given to little kids when they first start school, and which they take home to read with their parents.

Each page usually contains a sentence and a picture. The same sentence frame repeats on each page, with just one or two words changed to reflect the new picture.

Children often "read" these books by guessing from pictures, first letters and context, i.e. they engage in reading-like behaviour, but they're not actually reading. Often it's only when texts get more complex that adults notice that they can't actually decode.

Let's have a look at some example repetitive, predictable texts, and compare their spelling patterns and syllable structures with decodable texts, and see what they look like to a beginning reader.

If you get this blog post by email and the embedded video below has dropped out, click here to view it online.


To find a list of decodable books, click here.

C that sounds like “s”

The letter C can represent the sound "k" as in "cut" or the sound "s" as in "cent".

Teaching learners how this works and why it's a good thing when we start adding suffixes to words can be tricky, especially if they don't really understand "if-then" sentences yet.

Here's a 6 minute video I made about one way to do it.


Note that the spelling CC is sometimes followed by a letter E but the sound is still "k", e.g. soccer, sicced (as in "I sicced the dog onto the burglar and she ran off"). CC is like other doubled letters, its main purpose is to tell you to say a "short" vowel before it, as in raccoon, Mecca, piccolo, broccoli and buccaneer. Typically, but not always, we write CK instead of CC.

The spelling C+C might also represent a "k" sound at the end of one syllable followed by a "s" at the start of the next syllable, as in "accede", "accent", "accept", "access" and "coccyx". 

Also, either a single or double C might represent a "ch" sound in some Italian-origin words e.g. cello, Botticelli, bocce (click here for more).



Echo reading

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry recently upon discovering a video from the University of Canberra called “Echo Reading”.

OK, I thought, Whole Language/Balanced Literacy has finally jumped the shark.

In this video, an adult reads a book that is too hard for a student aloud, pausing after each sentence for the student to repeat the sentence:

If you are the sort of person inclined to notice things such as emperors not having any clothes, you will have noticed that all the student has to be able to do to succeed at “Echo Reading” is be able to repeat spoken sentences. They don’t even have to look at the text.

In Speech Pathology and linguistics circles, we call this skill “verbal imitation”. Not “reading”. Continue reading

The spelling ough

The spelling "ough" can be pronounced eight different ways in English.

Don't panic, there aren't many words, and some of them are so arcane I usually don't bother teaching them. But let's be fairly comprehensive here.

There are five different single sounds, and three sound combinations.

  • "aw" as in bought, brought, fought, nought, ought, sought, thought and wrought iron.
  • "ou" as in when the bough or the drought breaks, and the UK spelling of plough (in the US regularised to plow), as well as doughty old characters, the soughing wind and a deep slough of depression.
  • "oh" as in dough, furlough and though, as well as doughnut and although, if you want to count them separately.
  • "ooh" as in through.
  • "uh" as in thorough and borough, and names like Gainsborough, Marlborough, Peterborough and Scarborough.
  • "u" plus "f" as in rough, tough and enough, plus a snake sloughing off its skin.
  • "o" plus "f"* as in cough, former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and a cattle trough.
  • "u" plus "p" in hiccough, though nowadays many people seem to spell this hiccup.

That's it, as far as I know. Not so terrible after all.

* The "gh" spelling of the sound "f" is also used in the word "laugh", and goes after a vowel. Before a vowel, "gh" usually represents the sound "g" as in "Afghan", "ghost", "spaghetti" and "yoghurt".