Language Arts Canadian Lead Primary School

Irregular Words

The definition of irregular word has quite a number of variants. But you’re here because you, or someone who works with you, sees the value in a low variance curriculum for teaching literacy.

So let’s have a low variance approach to this concept:

An irregular word is a word that cannot be sounded out according to the letter-sound rules an individual knows.

A novice with a minimal working set of phoneme-grapheme correspondences (PGCs) lives in a world full of irregular words.

That’s why well-meaning teachers of novices are tempted to

  • encourage guessing when tackling unfamiliar words, or
  • encourage whole word memorisation of high frequency words.

With a limited set of PGCs, guessing and whole word memorisation are strategies that bring as much, if not more success as sounding out does. But be warned: the value of these strategies runs out very quickly, and instructional time devoted to teaching these as a strategy is wasted time.

Neither guessing nor whole word memorisation lead to efficient orthographic mapping.  This then poses a risk to spelling development.

Optional Further Study:

If you would like to hear or read more about guessing and whole word memorisation, we recommend this report by Emily Hanford. You can read the transcript or listen to the podcast:

At A Loss For Words

On the other end of that spectrum, there is the mature reader who has encountered and mapped every PGC in English and more besides (e.g. words that come from French, German, Spanish or Japanese etc. that have entered English). The only irregular words left in their world are place names, surnames, new coinages and Tier 3 vocabulary words from specialised fields.

Our job as educators is to take people from one end of that spectrum to the other as efficiently as we can.

Here’s a hint: For the vast majority of students, it’s not possible to do this through whole word memorisation. Human brains are good, but only a very rare few can perform such a feat of memory. The rest of us have to be taught how the writing system works.

This is why the phonics program your school is using has a section on high frequency “irregular” words. Some teach them better than others.

What word lists are really for

At the University of Illinois in 1961, a psychologist called Edward Dolch compiled a list of 220 of (what he thought) were the most common ‘tool/service words’, that is, words used across all written language regardless of genre.

His theory was, that if every child learned to read them effortlessly, they would be guaranteed academic success.

It’s a nice theory. But it’s been horribly misused, as has his list. The same thing has happened to the Fry Word List, a more modern list of 1,000 words in common usage.

Due to the popularity of a method of reading instruction called “Whole Word” or “Look-Say”, teachers have been teaching these words are wholes.

It’s a tempting shortcut to do this, as children actually can learn a bunch of words this way and some of them, having won the brain-architecture lottery, can even intuit the written code from this.

But does the method promote orthographic mapping?

Also, the use of these lists is about as far away from systematic teaching as you can get.

For instance, in the Dolch List, the word big (a simple 1:1 CVC pattern) is right there with away (a two-syllable word containing a digraph) and said (an unusual pronunciation of the digraph , which only really occurs in this word and in some accents in the word again, but which follows the grammatical/etymological pattern of lay and pay).

The amount of times I see children being given homework requiring them to learn this mishmash of random patterns astonishes me. This is whole word learning and not viable for many children.

The other thing about that mishmash, is that if teachers take the time to teach even the simple code via a high quality phonics program, a huge percentage of students’ time and energy can be saved by focusing on the less regular words.

The pdf below shows the basic Dolch List. I include it merely as a guide to the frequency of those words in literature (according to Dolch). In the second pdf, I have taken that list and highlighted in red, all the words that can arguably be decoded and encoded using nothing more than simple PGCs taught in high quality phonics programs. The ones in black would benefit from the 4-step process outlined next.

Dolch list

Dolch simplified

If we are to gain the most out of our instructional time, we have to use these pre-written lists intelligently. 

Optional further study: The Survival List Webinar

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