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In a previous post we talked about what homophone means, and how they are used in Primary Schools across England as a standard part of the National Curriculum. Now let us turn to another baffling piece of terminology that forms a key part of most Reading and Writing lessons: Common Exception Words.

common exception words

What are common exception words?

Common Exception words are sets of words, sorted by Year Groups, that don’t fit the usual spelling patterns taught. They occur regularly (Common), they don’t follow the rules (Exception), and are… words, hence words, Ahem… The little rebels of the written world.

Why are common exception words important?

These words can’t be read using segmenting and blending – sounding out and pushing the sounds together. So to improve Reading fluency and writing accuracy it is important that children become so familiar with them that they can read and spell them without hesitation. We call this skill whole word reading. Let me know if you want to learn more about that in a future post!

Are common exception words the same as tricky words?

Indeed. The English National Curriculum calls this set of spelling rule breaking renegades Common Exception Words, but you can call them what you like. There just aren’t any hard and fast rules. Especially since the statutory Letters and Sounds (2007) scheme became non-statutory and the new Reading Framework (2021) came in. Some schemes call them red words, some tricky, some schools change it up and have their own labels such as rocket words – then print them all on rockets. Basically, all the labels are for the same thing.

Are common exception words the same as High Frequency Words?

Yes. And no. But stay with me on this.

High Frequency Words (HFWs) are words that appear regularly in the English written word. Like the QWERTY keyboard, the HFWs depend on your language and vary from country to country. So how do High Frequency Words differ to Common Exception Words? They are a combination of words that can be decoded – or sounded out – using phonics skills AND those pesky Common Exception Words that can’t be.

Give me some examples of Common Exception Words!

Around a hundred words are assigned to each Primary year group pair: Years 1-2, Years 3-4 and Years 5-6, and a very select few are sampled in this graphic:

common exception words

However, check with your child’s school as some schools like to add HFWs to their spelling schemes. They may also send home topic-based spellings and technical words to aid with writing on the theme. Primary Schools keep policies and home learning on their websites and teachers love it when you support your kiddos at home, so chat to them too!

How do I teach the Common Exception Words?

During Phonics and Spelling sessions there is explicit teaching of the appropriate Common Exception words. I have curated some of my favourite ideas below that support the learning in a classroom, or at home.  Trust me, they are tried, tested and work:

Tricky word wands

Use a star, circle, heart or whatever shape piece of paper and ask the child to put the target word on it. Stick this onto the top of a straw, lolly stick, or any other suitable resource (pencils work as they can use it as a resource to help them spell it as they write). The kiddos then use the wand to scour the room for the word. Sometimes I let them say “ding” whenever they spot it. But that is an optional extra.

Common Exception word lucky dip

Write all known CEWs on separate pieces of paper, card or lolly sticks. Place in a bag and then children take turns to select a random card, say it and put it in a sentence. Can’t read it? Pick a friend to help you. While the others have their turns, they can write all the words selected on a whiteboard.

Common Exception word wordsearches

Wordsearches are undervalued. They need you to read the word multiple times, and check you have the correct spelling as you cross it out. They also improve skimming and scanning techniques for information retrieval. What’s not to love?

Tricky word tally

In a prepared text, or going through the library/book corner children have to tally how many times they encounter the target CEW.

Real word Tricky word search

Similarly to the tricky word tally, give each child a secret tricky word. Then they have to spot it on a page in a “real” book. They tell a partner, or an adult how many they found on the page and the partner has to work out their secret word!

As you can see, there are so many quick or no prep activities! Plus you can use them routinely with each CEW or HFW introduced! Hooray! But how do you practice the Common Exception Words?


Do you have any more ideas to share? Please comment below or signup for the regular educator newsletters with more top tips and tricks!

common exception words

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