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Tricks of the trade: Tackling words that are difficult to segment

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Tricks of the trade: Tackling words that are difficult to segment

Sound Waves Literacy 10/5/18


Segmenting words into phonemes (sounds) and graphemes is an essential skill for spelling success. Some words are fairly straightforward to segment, such as shop (/sh/o/p/) or chain (/ch/ai/n/), but what about fox or argue?

The complex nature of the English language means some words might be more challenging for students (and even teachers) to segment, and many words can be segmented in more than one way!

Here are five types of words that can be tricky to segment, along with tips to tackle them.

1. Words with ‘x’ representing two sounds

The word fox rhymes with socks. The word socks has four sounds (/s/o/ck/s/) and so does the word fox, but the latter only has three graphemes (f, o and x). In the word fox, the grapheme x represents two sounds: [**k**ite] .

When we segment a word that contains a grapheme representing two sounds, that grapheme is written across two boxes.


Other words where x represents the blend of [**k**ite] include box, six, taxi, next, relax, prefix and expect. However, x is not the only grapheme that does this. For example, the grapheme u in computer represents [b**oo**t].

2. Words with a blend

We sometimes write ue for [b**oo**t], such as in true and glue. However, in the word argue, the grapheme ue represents two sounds (just like the x in fox does). The ue in argue represents [b**oo**t].

When we segment words with a blend, the grapheme representing the two sounds, such as the ue in argue, is written across two boxes.


There are several other graphemes that can represent the blend. If you or your students are not sure if a word contains the blend, say the word aloud with only an [b**oo**t] sound and see if it sounds correct. For example, music does not sound right as [b**oo**t] igloo [**k**ite].

Other graphemes that can represent the blend include:

  • u in computer
  • u_e in tube
  • eau in beauty
  • ew in few
  • iew in view
  • ui in pursuit.
3. Words with a ‘qu’

Teaching students that the letter q is usually accompanied by the letter u is useful when it comes to spelling. However, when it comes to segmenting, students might get confused by the spelling convention and want to group the qu together as a grapheme to represent one sound, even though the q and u may be representing the two individual sounds [**k**ite] .

In the word queen, we hear the sounds [**k**ite] and at the start of the word. Queen has four sounds, so it is segmented into four boxes.


If students are attempting to incorrectly group the letters qu together as a grapheme representing a single sound, it’s important to go back to basics for segmenting:

  1. Look at the word, then close your eyes or look away from it so the letters do not influence you.
  2. Say the word out loud, slowly and naturally.
  3. Segment the word into its individual sounds, holding up a finger for each sound.
  4. Assign the relevant grapheme to each sound. (You can either draw a row of boxes and write each grapheme into a box, or use a tool like the Segmenting Tool in the Sound Waves Teaching Resources).
4. Words that end in ‘le’

Segmenting words that end in le can be very tricky because they usually have a schwa sound (represented by in Sound Waves) in their pronunciation. The schwa is often a very quick sound in words ending in le and sometimes it is not clear whether it is in a word or not. In fact, segmenting words ending with le is so tricky that sometimes different dictionaries won’t agree on the number of sounds in the same word.

The word table, for example, could be segmented in three ways:

  1. Into five sounds – /t/a/b/uh/l/ – with le representing the blend of two sounds, schwa and . Like the x in fox and ue in argue, when a grapheme represents two sounds, it is written across two boxes.
  2. Into five sounds – /t/a/b/uh/l/ – with l representing the schwa and e representing . Segmenting5
  3. Into four sounds – /t/a/b/l/ – with le representing .

While the latter two segmented words have unusual grapheme choices, ultimately, each of the above is correct and you can accept different answers from students as long as they can justify their choices.

5. Words with silent letters

It is often acceptable to segment words with silent letters in more than one way. For example, in cupboard the up could represent , or the pb could represent . Either of these is correct and it actually doesn’t matter which way it is segmented – in both instances the p is silent. What does matter is that the word is spelled correctly.


When a word isn’t straightforward to segment, it’s important to have a discussion about the word with students. Often a discussion is a great opportunity to look at a word’s etymology to further investigate why it is spelled the way it is. Originally, a cupboard was a board or table where cups were stored. Over time, the meaning and pronunciation have changed but the spelling has remained locked in, which is why we get the letters pb representing , or up representing .

Overall, when you come across a tricky word to segment, the most important thing to remember is not to get caught up in a black-and-white rule of how words should be segmented. Instead, embrace the rich discussions that can come about when tricky words are encountered. These discussions will prove invaluable as they also assist students to achieve the ultimate goal of spelling words correctly.

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