Best practice for teaching irregular words

A summary of a presentation from the 2024 DSF Conference.

By Kate Andrew

I attended the DSF Language, Literacy and Learning Conference recently and one session that had me particularly intrigued was addressing the myths, misconceptions and methods of instruction in relation to irregular words.

Following the conference, I reached out to presenters Professor Saskia Kohnen and Dr Danielle Colenbrander, from the Australian Centre for the Advancement of Literacy, ACU, who advised they were happy for me to paraphrase presentation content for our readers. So strap in!

What do we mean by ‘irregular’ words

It’s pretty straight forward: the most common pronunciation is ‘regular’ and everything else is ‘irregular’.

For example, the word rung is regular – the sounds (phonemes) are expected for the letters (graphemes) presented.

The word young is irregular  – the sounds are /y/ /u/ /ng/ but the spelling is Y-OU-NG. The OU spelling for the /u/ sound is somewhat unexpected.

Which brings me to the first concept raised…

Regularity as a continuous feature

Rather than thinking of spelling as ‘regular’ or ‘irregular’ Saskia raised the idea of regularity as a continuum – words are ir––regular!

For example, yacht sits at the lower end - ACH for /o/ is very irregular!

The word find is somewhat irregular. The ‘long i’ in this word is unexpected but if we consider find in relation to mind, kind, bind, hind, grind, wind then its place on the continuum is further towards regular than yacht.

Regularity for reading and spelling overlaps. Therefore paying attention to the patterns in words (spoken or written) can be helpful as what seemed irregular in isolation may be somewhat regular if the pattern (spoken or written) occurs in a number of words. Regularity of a pattern also means there’s more chance the child can transfer it to other words.

Irregular ‘for now’ or ‘forever’?

We also need to address the notion of whether a word is truly irregular or just irregular based on the level of phonic code currently known to the child.

For example, the word said is irregular forever. However words like my, why, by all follow a specific pattern which will be taught at some point in a systematic phonics sequence. However, if we want a child to be able to read my, why or by in a simple decodable reader then we need to teach them these words. The words are ‘irregular for now’ but as they learn more code the words will become regular.

The implication of ‘for now’ or ‘forever’ is really one of overload. We don't want to be throwing too many ‘irregular’ words at a child, particularly if there's an opportunity to introduce it shortly as a fully decodable ‘regular’ word within your scope and sequence!

Side note: Within the Read3 program we are acutely aware of cognitive overload! As a result we tend to align high frequency (often irregular) words with the code and letter patterns being taught, thus eliminating irregular ‘for now’ as much as possible. 🙂

Teaching irregular words: what does the evidence say?

With so many ‘irregular’ words in the English language, the big question is how should we teach them?

Well, when it comes to best practice for teaching irregular words there’s not as much research as you might think…

Heart Words

The ‘heart words’ method is quite popular at present and fits nicely with the idea of systematic phonics instruction. The premise is you identify the regular parts of the word and learn the irregular part ’by heart’.

Let’s look at the word young again.

The Y and NG are pronounced with the regular /y/ and /ng/ sounds.

The OU in this word is pronounced /u/ so we would need to learn that ‘by heart’


Surprisingly, there is currently no evidence supporting ‘heart words’ as an effective method of teaching irregular words. This is a theory-based approach not evidence based practice.

That is not to say that teaching ‘heart words’ is not sound practice – the theory is solid – there’s just no research to confirm it yet. One of Danielle’s colleagues in the UK will be conducting a study into the effectiveness of ‘heart words’ shortly so stay tuned for that!

Look Say Cover Write Check (LSCWC)

For those of you in the teaching profession, it’s possible that the term Look Say Cover Write Check (LSCWC) is giving you a balanced literacy flashback right at this moment, but the research indicates LSCWC is evidence based.

A range of case studies and randomised controlled studies have been undertaken (some are included below) examining LSCWC as a method of teaching sight words and whether the learning can be generalised to other irregular words.

The summary of findings presented by Danielle and Saskia was:

  • LSCWC can improve irregular word reading in primary school aged children with low literacy skills
  • LSCWC can improve reading of trained irregular words more so than general phonics training
  • LSCWC does not harm decoding ability
  • Improvements may generalise to untrained words that are high in frequency and have ‘neighbours’ with similar spelling and neighbourhood size and with less severe misspellings
  • Additional fact: LSCWC improves spelling, but mostly of trained words

All in all, there are some good reasons to include a little LSCWC in our teaching practice.

Mispronunciation Correction (MPC)

Mispronunciation Correction is a strategy that encourages the child to decode the word using the ‘regular’ pronunciation of each grapheme and then make an adjustment if it doesn't sound quite right (based on the child’s vocabulary) or fit the context of the sentence. This notion is also referred to as ‘set for variability’.

For example, with the word push or pull the regular pronunciation of the grapheme U would be /u/. The child would then make a correction based on vocabulary knowledge and sentence context.

A range of studies have been conducted on MPC and again there is some evidence that it can improve irregular word reading but that it doesn’t often transfer to other irregular words.

A 2022 study, that both Danielle and Saskia were involved with, compared MCP with other methods for teaching irregular words (reference below). They concluded: 

  • Children showed evidence of superior learning of trained words in the ‘Look and Spell’ and the MPC conditions, compared to ‘Look and Say’ and control conditions.
  • Differences between the Look and Spell and MPC conditions were not significant. 
  • There was no evidence of generalisation to untrained items.

The findings indicate active processing of a word’s orthography (the letter patterns) is crucial for learning irregular words which has implications for initial reading instruction. Having the written word in front of the child as you teach it enables you to draw attention to the unexpected orthography and sound patterns while you discuss the meaning of the word.

So what IS the best way to teach irregular words?

Like so many things, there’s never an easy answer. The best plan is to have all the evidence-based strategies in your ‘toolkit’ and use whichever seems appropriate for a particular word.

After reflecting on this, here’s my take on a starting point for decision making:

  • If there is an immediate need for the word, and the word is forever irregular (e.g. the, is, do), then Look Say Cover Write Check might be best.
  • If the ‘irregular’ pronunciation in a word is transferable to other words (i.e. put, push, pull or kind, find, mind) then Mispronunciation Correction is a suitable choice (and there may be some generalisation to other similar words).
  • If the ‘irregular’ pronunciation in a word is not very transferable to other words (i.e. young) then Mispronunciation Correction or Heart Words could be useful (but it’s unlikely there will be much transfer to other words).
  • If the word is ‘irregular for now’ (i.e. then, when, this) and you know it will be covered shortly in your phonics sequence, you might just Look and Say the word, move on, then reintroduce as a regular word when the code (i.e. consonant digraphs) are taught!
  • Vocabulary and context play a crucial role in word recognition and understanding. After the child has attempted to decode the word, have them consider the context of the sentence/paragraph/story to see if they can make the link between the ‘irregular’ word and the correct pronunciation.
  • And don’t forget to practise writing the word! The physical act of sounding out and writing down the word will help make the pattern ‘stick’.

If you have other thoughts (or comments on my interpretation) feel free to share below!


Latest Research and Podcast appearances

If you’re keen to learn more, check out Danielle and Saskia’s latest work.

Colenbrander, D., Kohnen, S., Beyersmann, E., Robidoux, S., Wegener, S., Arrow, T., … Castles, A. (2022). Teaching Children to Read Irregular Words: A Comparison of Three Instructional Methods. Scientific Studies of Reading, 26(6), 545–564.

Danielle also featured recently on Melissa and Lori Love Literacy Episode 188 and discusses her research in some detail from the 22 minute mark. This podcast is also available on SPOTIFY.

Some other references:

Broom, Y. M., & Doctor, E. A. (1995). Developmental surface dyslexia: A case study of the efficacy of a remediation programme. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 12(1), 69–110.

Colenbrander, D., Wang, H., Arrow, T., Hua-Chen Wang., Castles, A. (2020). Teaching irregular words: What we know, what we don’t know, and where we can go from here. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist 37(2):1-8.

Dyson, H., Best, W., Solity, J., & Hulme, C. (2017). Training mispronunciation correction and word meanings improves children’s ability to learn to read words. Scientific Studies of Reading, 21(5), 392–407. 

Kohnen, S., Nickels, L., Brunsdon, R., & Coltheart, M. (2008, February). Patterns of generalisation after treating sub-lexical spelling deficits in a child with mixed dysgraphia. Journal of Research in Reading, 31(1), 157–177. 

McArthur, G., Castles, A., Kohnen, S., Larsen, L., Jones, K., Anandakumar, T., & Banales, E. (2015). Sight Word and Phonics Training in Children With Dyslexia. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 48(4), 391-407.

Tunmer WE, & Chapman JW (2012). Does set for variability mediate the influence of vocabulary knowledge on the development of word recognition skills? Scientific Studies of Reading, 16(2), 122–140.

Zipke, M. (2016). The importance of flexibility of pronunciation in learning to decode: A training study in set for variability. First Language, 36(1), 71-86.

1 comment

  • This is so helpful, thanks Kate! Lyn Stone’s 4 part process + word families approach seems to tie a lot of these strategies together and I’ve just started using it with a more intermediate student. Her main issues are with decoding irregular words, multi-syllable words and text reading fluency, as well as spelling fluency. It seems to be going well! It will be interesting to try it with a more beginner reader. Or it may be better for them to focus more on just one of the strategies in the list.


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