What are exception words?

What are exception words?
As your child learns to read you might hear them talk about the 'exception words' they are learning. We explain what exception words are, what role they play in phonics learning and how you can support your child's developing reading and spelling skills at home.

What are exception words?

Exception words are words in which the English spelling code works in an unusual or uncommon way. They are not words for which phonics 'doesn't work', but they may be exceptions to spelling rules, or words which use a particular combination of letters to represent sound patterns in a rare or unique way.

Some exception words are used very frequently, which is why children are introduced to them very early on in their phonics learning (in Reception, alongside high frequency words, and in Key Stage 1). 

How are common exception words taught in Y1 and Y2?

English has a complex spelling system in which the same letter (or letters) can be used to represent different sounds and the same sound can be represented by different letters.

As children learn to read within a structured phonics method all these different phoneme (spoken unit of sound) and grapheme (the written symbol that represents a sound) correspondences are explained, and the 2014 English curriculum has set out the various spelling rules (and exception words) that need to be learnt by children in each year of their primary education

Examples of exception rules are:

Year 1  
  Children learn that the 's' sound after a short vowel is usually represented by 'ss', however 'bus' is an exception to this.
  The word 'school' has a 'ch' in it but makes a sound like 'k', it is therefore an exception word as it does not follow the phonic rules children will have been taught so far.
Year 2  
  When you add the suffix -ing / -er /-ed to a root word, if that word has a short vowel and one consonant, the consonant needs to be doubled (for example, pat becomes patting). An exception to this is words ending in x: mix - mixing, box - boxer.
  The word 'sugar' is an exception word because it starts with an 's' but is pronounced 'sh'.

Examples of exception words are:

Year 1  
  the, a, do, to, today, of, said, says, are, were, was, is, his, has, I, you, your, they, be, he, me, she, we, no, go, so, by, my, here, there, where, love, come, some, one, once, ask, friend, school, put, push, pull, full, house, our – and/or other words, depending on the phonics learning programme used in your child's school
Year 2  
  door, floor, poor, because, find, kind, mind, behind, child, children*, wild, climb, most, only, both, old, cold, gold, hold, told, every, everybody, even, great, break, steak, pretty, beautiful, after, fast, last, past, father, class, grass, pass, plant, path, bath, hour, move, prove, improve, sure, sugar, eye, could, should, would, who, whole, any, many, clothes, busy, people, water, again, half, money, Mr, Mrs, parents, Christmas – and/or other words, depending on the phonics learning programme used in your child's school

How are children taught exception words?

The number and order of exception words your child will be taught will vary according to the phonics programme being used in their school. Also, some English words are exceptions in some regional accents but not in others. 

In the classroom practical strategies will often be used to introduce children to specific groups of exception words.

  • Teachers might give children a task where they would need to add endings to various words (for example, they might give them the words pat, mix, sit, tut, clap, box and ask them to add the suffix -ing to these words; children would need to remember the rule that if the root word has a short vowel then the consonant after it needs to be doubled before adding ing, unless the word ends in an x, in which case just -ing is added).
  • Teachers might give children alternative strategies for spelling exception words; for example, 'because' and 'beautiful' are exception words because they do not follow the usual phonic rules. Teachers might use mnemonics (memory techniques) to help children with this. For example, to remember the correct spelling of the word 'because' children might be encouraged to remember the mnemonic 'big elephants can always understand small elephants' (each first letter of this sentence makes up the letters of the word 'because'). For 'beautiful' they might be given the mnemonic 'big elephants always understand tiny insects'.

How children learn to read using phonics: a parent's guide

Understand more about how children are taught to read with our step-by-step parents' guide to phonics teaching.

More advice, information and practical resources to help primary-school children with phonics and reading are available on our subject hub page.