What are Common Exception Words?

What are Common Exception Words?


Common exception words are everyday words that break the phonic rules taught at school.

Whilst these words will always be part of each child’s common vocabulary, they will eventually cease to be ‘exception words’ when the child understands the rules behind their pronunciation and spelling.

Depending on the phonics and/or spelling programme used in your child’s school, these words may either be called common exception words, tricky words or red words. Each programme takes its own approach, but all good programmes ensure that the common exception words listed in the national curriculum are covered by the end of Key Stage 1.

Common exception words are important because they are just that: common. They are words that appear frequently in texts and that help readers understand what they are reading. For example, ‘the’ is a common exception word taught in most programmes at the beginning of the Reception year. To access even the simplest texts, children need to be able to read this word, and they will certainly want to use it in their own compositions.

At this stage of literary development, the word ‘the’ requires knowing the phoneme ‘th’ (which is not taught until the next phonics phase in most programmes) and understanding that in this word the ‘e’ phoneme is making the sound ‘uh’ instead of the ‘e’ (as in ‘egg’) sound that they’ve been taught. It may not look like it to us, but ‘the’ is a very tricky word, indeed.

Schools will have different approaches for teaching common exception words, but most teach them explicitly by pointing out the ‘tricky’ elements in the word and using the same techniques that are applied to other, more regular words. So, with ‘the’ teachers may encourage children to use ‘sound buttons’ to indicate the two sounds making the word ‘the’ th + ẹ just as they would with any other word.

‘The’ doesn’t stay tricky for long, and ideally this is the case with other common exception words too. If your child is struggling to read and write common exception words, there are techniques you can use to support them. Mnemonics can be useful. For example, many children learn to spell the word ‘because’ by remembering the mnemonic ‘big elephants can always understand small elephants’. The tricky ‘eau’ grapheme in ‘beautiful’ can be bypassed by creating the statement ‘be a utiful’, which seems so much more straightforward, although you may then find yourself wondering what a utiful is and what it looks like!

Many common exception words share the same letter strings, so grouping them by these patterns can be a useful approach. Your child can then learn a pattern once and apply it to each of the grouped words. For example, if they can read could, they should also be able to read should and would.


Our new flashcards are a great way to practice common exception words at home with your child. They are fun, colourful and simple to use, with plenty of practice tips included.