How To Decode “Non-Decodable” Words
So Kids Don’t Have to Memorize Them!

Did you know that if you had a fever and cough, it could be the plague,
or pneumonia…or maybe just the flu?
Actually, it could be a lot of things.

Because doctors know that the plague is the least likely cause of your symptoms and that the flu is the most likely, they will probably go with the flu first, and then work their way through the alternative options, as needed.

As medicine is not an exact science, doctors must often work through a series of options to determine what treatment will be most effective with their patients. They make these decisions based on a hierarchy of likelihood to determine what is most likely, next most likely, and least likely to be successful.

Like medicine, the English language and is not an exact science, and while phonics is the key to learning how to read, it’s often takes a binary form, with words either falling under the “rule” or the “exception.” However, by targeting instruction to earlier-developing, “feeling” based centers in the brain and aligning letter behavior with kid behavior, their most and next-most likely sounds become easily predictable, even for kinders….and even in those “so-called” exceptions!

A good word doctor who is armed with the Secrets can “treat” these so-called exceptions in much the same way that doctors treat their patients. And in doing so, a critical-thinking playground begins to emerge as beginning and struggling readers gain power over text.

First, it’s important to realize that there are only so many different sounds that a letter or letter pattern can make, and their not random, even though they may sometimes appear so. Just like the saying, The apple won’t fall too far from the tree,” letters won’t stray too far from their sounds! For example, you will never see the letter q say “mmm,” or the letter k say “duh,” or the tion pattern say “ing!”

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics


Contrary to popular belief, letters don’t just lose their little ‘letter-minds’ and run amok! All they do (and it’s usually the vowels that do it!) is make sounds that they are perfectly capable of making— but it just might be their next-most likely ones! Watch the video clip below to see what I mean!


When working with patients, doctors must ask themselves, “How many different ways can I look at this? How many different ways can I solve it?” Beginning and struggling readers must also employ this kind of diagnostic thinking when attempting to sound out unknown words, asking themselves, “What else can it be?….  What else could I try?” Engaging in this type of analytical, problem-solving is often referred to as “thinking outside the box,” and the key to doing it effectively is to first know what’s IN the box!

Thinking Outside the Box to Decode Words and So-Called “Exceptions!”

phonics exceptions

This is why knowing the Secrets is so important for beginning and struggling readers, as the Secret Stories® equip them with everything that’s IN the box so that they are more easily able to think outside it— something that working with text demands!

The ou/ow Secret….

Ou ow play really rough and someone always gets hurt and says— “Oooowww!” 

(as in words like: our, round, how, now)

But, flying overhead is Superhero O, who happens to be o & w‘s all-time, favorite superhero, ever!

If ow ever spots Superhero O flying overhead, they stop dead in their tracks, and yell—

“O! O! O!” 

…which is why ow can also say O! (It’s “default” sound)

(as in words like: blow, flow, glow, mow)



The Secret (and default sound for ow) makes sounding out most words with this common pattern easy, even for kinders, which means that words like: how, now, about, around, etc, commonly found on sight word need NOT be memorized! As with the Secret, kids can just READ them! Plus, kids can learn the ou/ow Secret in an instant, even if they haven’t mastered all of the individual letter sounds yet, as it still makes sense. Memorizing a sight word however, can take some students forever… especially those with little to no home support, as they are less likely to use it enough to make it stick. And even more importantly, knowing a sight word allows learners to read one word, whereas knowing a Secret empowers them to read and write thousands!

Now let’s consider a word like you

The ou isn’t doing what it should, according to the Secret. Still, the sound it IS making in the word hasn’t really strayed too far away… at least not so far that a good word doctor couldn’t easily figure it out! And here’s how…

A “Hierarchy of Likelihood” Approach to Decoding (a.k.a. Thinking Outside the Box)

1.  First, try the most likely Secret Stories sound for ou (as in house)….. NOPE, it didn’t work!

2.  Next, try the individual sounds for the letters and ….. BINGO!!! We got the word!!

In this case, we got it on the second try.

Now, had we not struck gold on our first “out-of-the-box” attempt, we could have worked our way further down the list of possible sound options and turned this puzzle into a sort of problem-solving/critical thinking game….

3.  Try the sounds of other Secret Stories patterns with o or  u, like the Secrets for oo, oi/oy or ous. For example, in the word could, the ou is making the default-sound for oo (as in book) and kids who know the oo Secret might try that sound as one more possible option.

oo phonics story

And of course, you can also pull out the handy “Head-Bop” Trick in a pinch to help kids easily figure out those otherwise non-decodable words, like: of, come, love, some, what, was, etc.. (You can read more about this trick here.)

sight word activities

thinking vowels head bop


4.  It’s the PLAGUE!  It requires a specialist! When we’ve exhausted all options and have no more tricks up our sleeve, we must surrender to the word, which means we have to memorize it!

Why Not Just Memorize Tricky Sight Words?

Here’s why— because it is within this “figuring-out” (a.k.a. analytical/critical-thinking) process that deep learning lies! Not just learning how to read, but learning how to think! Our brain is a pattern-making machine, and this patterning process of thinking-through all available options is its natural way of doing things. “If not this, then that…” Our brain is continually patterning-out the best  available options in everything that we do.

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics

We think, “I’ll park in the front, but if I can’t find a space, I’ll try the back, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll try the next lot over. If I can’t find anything there, then I’m giving up and going home, as I’m too tired to walk that far.” We don’t think— “I’ll park in the front, but if I can’t find a space, then I don’t know what I’ll do!” (This is similar to the way in which kids often handle words that are exceptions, which is to throw their hands up in surrender the minute that letters don’t do exactly what they should in a word.)

Seth Godwin, author of Looking for Patterns (Where they don’t Exist! writes,

“Human beings are pattern-making machines. That’s a key to our survival instinct— we seek out patterns and use them to predict the future. Which is great, except when the pattern isn’t there, then our pattern-making machinery is busy picking things out that truly don’t matter.” 

The Brain is a Pattern-Making Machine

Our brains are hardwired to look for patterns, and the Secrets are patterns— not abstract letter patterns, but patterns of behavior that are designed to mimic learners’ own behavior.  The ability to classify incoming information quickly into categories (based on the patterns we know) means the brain can use easier rules to deal with the new input, which is less stressful than always having to deal with things that haven’t been seen before. Knowing the Secrets equips inexperienced beginning and struggling learners to identify the best course of action when sounding out new words, and not knowing the Secrets means having to say, “It just is… It just does… You just have to remember….” when they can’t read or spell a word.

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics

Another benefit to reading words rather than just memorizing them is that it sparks more optimal brain circuitry, as evidenced by numerous studies, including a recent one by Stanford University Professor, Bruce McCandliss, which you can read more about here. 


Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics— Stanford University Sight Word Brain Study
Stanford Brain Study on Sight Words Post

Just to be clear, some words are just better to memorize, as mentioned when discussing the word could, up above. But most are not, especially if they now the Secrets and can easily read them! Consider that every sight word that a learner memorizes is one less opportunity to reinforce their “sounding-out” (decoding) skills that you work so hard to teach, and more importantly, one less opportunity to flex their “critical thinking/problem solving” muscles!

Now before you read any further, watch this video.

It’s easy for teachers to empathize with Ricky’s struggle to read words like: boughs, through, rough, cough and enough. Like many students in our guided reading groups, Ricky diligently attempts to decode what seem to him to be ‘un-decodable’ words and becomes understandably frustrated in the process. Ultimately, Ricky just closes the book and gives up, convinced that the sounds letters make just don’t make sense. Many of our students feel the same way.

How To Think Like a “Word Doctor” to Decode Text

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics

In the same way that a doctor works through various options to heal a patient, we can do the same to “heal” the words that are stumping Ricky…. or at least to help make them more “figureoutable!” ( I know it’s not a word, but I really like it!)

First, we need to know another Secret…

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics
Click Here to Learn the gh Secret

The gh Secret

Gh will make different sounds, depending on where they are in line (i.e. in a word)

When they are at the FRONT, they’re glad!

There, they make the hard g sound, saying….

 “Gosh, this is Great!  We’re going to Get to Go first and Get in before anyone else Goes!” 

(ghost, ghoul, ghastly, etc…)

When they are in the MIDDLE, and surrounded by lots of other letters,

they are silent and are too afraid to say anything and make NO SOUND at all

(sight, thought, straight, etc…)

When they are at the END, they’re not at all happy and they always complain.

Here, they make the fff sound, saying….

“This is no ffun! We’re so ffar away it’ll take fforever ffor us to get to the ffront!”

(rough, enough, cough, etc…) 

Now let’s play “Word Doctor”….

A Reading/ Phonics Word Doctor


No problem with the ou as it is doing just what it should (see ou/ow poster up above)

But gh is a different story, as it is not making the sound that it should, which is “fff.”  So let’s try one of the only TWO other sounds that it can make, and voila! We got it! The gh is silent! The gh Secret is everything that’s IN the box when it comes to all of the possible sounds that gh can make, making it easy for learners to deduce the next most likely options when it doesn’t do exactly what it should!



Like in the word you (mentioned at the top of the post), ou is not making the sound that it should, but by simply trying the individual sounds for both and u, we can easily get the word! In this case, ou is making the short u sound. And thankfully, gh is doing exactly what it should when it’s at the end of a word!


Just as with the word rough,  ou is not making the sound that it should, but is making one of their individual sounds, instead. This time, it’s the short o sound. And again, the gh is doing exactly what it should.


Once more the ou is not making the sound that it should, but it IS doing the next most likely thing, based on our “hierarchy of likelihood” (way up above at top of post), just as it did in the words you, rough and cough.  In this case, it’s making the short u sound. And once again,  gh is doing what it should.


Now this one’s a little trickier— bordering between being “fun to figure out” and “just easier to memorize,”  I would probably go with the latter, but it is gratifying to know that with a little “out of the box” thinking, we CAN crack this word, should we chose to!

The ou is not making the sound that it should, nor is it making the o or u sound, but just like the word you that was mentioned at the top of this post, it is making the most likely sound of its “cousin” oo … and by cousin, I mean another similar Secret that looks like it could be a possible relative, as it shares a common relative, which is o.  (The sound for oo can be seen in the oo poster way up above.)

And then we have the same problem with gh that we had with a couple of the other words up above— nothing that a good word doctor can’t fix, as gh is just being difficult and refusing to talk, as is his prerogative. However, it does require an extra analytical step to crack the word, which may be one too many to make it worthwhile. Thus, it merits the time, energy and space in the brain that’s required memorize.

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics

This video clip shows a group of first graders playing “Word Doctor” and applying some critical analysis and diagnostic thinking to the word light. While they can already read the word, they bothered by the fact that i is bothering to say his name when there Mommy E® or Babysitter Vowel® in sight!

Patterning IS Thinking

Brain Based Reading

The following excerpt is taken from 12 Design Principles Based on Brain-based Learning Research by Jeffery Lackney, Ph. D.

Pattern making is pleasing to the brain. The brain takes great pleasure in taking random and chaotic information and ordering it. The implications for learning and instruction is that presenting a learner with random and unordered information provides the maximum opportunity for the brain to order this information and form meaningful patterns that will be remembered. Setting up a learning environment in this way mirrors real life that is often random and chaotic.

The brain, when allowed to express its pattern-making behavior, creates coherency and meaning. Learning is best accomplished when the learning activity is connected directly to physical experience. We remember best when facts and skills are embedded in natural, spatial memory, in real-life activity, in experiential learning. We learn by doing. facilitated in an environment of total immersion in a multitude of complex interactive experiences.

Hmmmm…. that sounds a lot like the class in the video!

The Superhero Vowels® and their “Short & Lazy” Sound Disguises

Secret Stories Phonics Posters

For a quick overview of the Superhero Vowels® and their “short & lazy” sound disguises, watch the video below.

And the last little doctor tool that I want to share before signing off is about the vowels, as they are the most likely culprits when words just won’t sound-out correctly! Vowels are the “eyes, ears, nose and throat” of a word, which is why good word doctors should always check them out first! They offer the best window into what’s most likely wrong. Sometimes it’s an issue with a Secret (as with the words we’ve seen in this post) but other times fixing the problem requires having a few “vowel-fixing” tricks up your sleeve— something that every good word should have!

decoding exception words
Learn more word doctor strategies, including, the “Thinking Vowels/Head-Bop” and the “Hungry Thing” to crack tricky vowel sounds here and watch the video down below!

How to Read Words that are Exceptions

How to Decode “Undecodable” Words So Kids Don’t Have to MEMORIZE Them

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23 replies
  1. Anonymous says:

    Amber O.May 29, 2014 at 10:36 PM

    Okay… I have the book, the CD, the posters, the complete set (thanks to your monthly drawing!) and I am very excited to start using it with my new group of kiddos this fall. My question right now is: what do we say to our young readers when they go through a "word diagnosis", like we would have to do for all those words above? How do we encourage them to keep trying different sounds until they hear a word they know, and then try that correct-sounding word in context to make sure it makes sense? Before, when I instructed small groups, I would just tell them the word and then add it to their sight word list or practice it a few more times as a "sight word" in a group or individually until I felt it was memorized. Bad practice, I realize now, but having them keep trying sounds they know seems exhausting! I know it will help them much more having to figure it out on their own, but I just wonder if you have a bag of tricks or phrases you use to keep them from getting discouraged and just giving up! Thanks for this post and any further tips/advice on this issue!

  2. Katie Garner says:

    Great question! But it comes from a traditional 'skill-based' instructional context… one in which letters, patterns and sounds have to be "taught" and "learned." When I write these blog posts, I sometimes forget to account for the paradigm shift that occurs when sharing the skills rather than teaching them, as you would have to do in traditional instruction, in piece-meal-fahsion from K through 3rd.

    With the Secrets, you can just 'give' them the skills/ tools they need…. literally… AS they need them, so as to effectively acquire "everything needed" in-tandem with WHEN it's needed. As you now have the kit, you'll see that it's really THAT easy! Even if you are in your last couple days of school, try out a few Secrets with the kids and you'll see what I mean :)

    The 'social-emotive' neural pathways used to "acquire, store, and apply" the Secrets are the same as those used to tell the sub "who's supposed to be the line leader…. who can't sit by who…. who should never eat peanuts, etc.." In other words, the 'options' they are working through are just as familiar to them as the back of their own hand, regardless of whether they are PreK or remedial middle school. That's what's so awesome about teaching with the brain in mind, especially in phonics skill instruction, which is literally 180 degrees in defiance of how the brain learns.

    As for how to initiate the 'diagnosis' process….MODELING, MODELING, MODELING! All the time, across all subject areas. Take advantage of the fact that students read and writing ACROSS the curriculum, and throughout the instructional day. When I do school inservice with intermediate grade teachers, the Secrets are actually 'buried' within their content area instruction, so as to be shared in varied contexts every day, as opposed to primary grades, who have the luxury of focusing on reading and writing skills, specifically.

    If you want to get an idea of how the modeling would look, you can check out the super short video clips on the Secret Stories website, under the heading "LIVE in the Classroom" here…….

    Thanks so much for the great question, and I would love to hear back if you get the chance to play around with some of the Secrets before school ends this year!

  3. Missy Canick says:

    Okay, here goes.
    First of all, I am your number one fan!
    I attended both of your workshops at the Colorado Conference and could have gladly attended ten more times. I just couldn't get enough of what you were saying! Everything just made so much sense and completely made me rethink all that I do with my little guys in the classroom. Anyway, I literally could not stop talking about you and the Secret Stories for the rest of the day, so probably to shut me up, the teachers I had come with agreed to come with me to see your next session, after which we were ALL obsessed!

    Our primary teachers now use the Secret Stories across the board and our intermediate grades will be starting next fall. I just wanted you to know that as amazing as I thought the secrets while listening to you at the conference, they're even BETTER!!!

    Thank you Katie and Mrs. Jump for putting these incredible teaching tools into the hands of teachers who haven't had the chance to experience them!

    And Katie, any chance that you will be doing an institute at CCIRA this year? If so, I will need to start harassing my principal now so that I can go!

    I tried to edit and add on to my previous comment but it wouldn't let me so I had to repost this, but I was also wondering what you thought about preK starting the secrets before the kids get to k, as ours haven't yet, but I know you do mention them in your video blogs

  4. Diane Vasquez says:

    We are all big fans of the Secret Stories at our school. Everyone from kindergarten through second grade will have it next year, and I'm very excited about that! I found the article very interesting because I've been one of those teachers who has ended up giving words to children when I thought the Secret Stories could not be used. I will definitely let my students know in the future that sometimes they need to try other sounds for the vowels, rather than the traditional Secret Story sounds. It's definitely a different way of looking at things, and I'm excited about trying it. I'm going to try it over the next week and a half of school and am anxious to see how they do. Katie, you make such a difference in students' lives. My students have done very well in reading this year, and I feel that I owe it to you and the Secrets! Thanks for all that you do!

  5. Katie Garner says:

    First of all, THANK YOU for the so, so, VERY kind words! They really are very much appreciated, and I am so happy that you got a lot out of my session…. BOTH of them! LoL! I've been told that I talk so quickly that it actually takes two times listening to catch it all ;)

    As for your questions, I will be at the Colorado Conference, I wouldn't miss it, as it's one of my favorite venues and always crazy crowded… in a good way! As far as doing an institute, I'm not sure if I will be able to get in in time, as I fly in from another venue and the timing might be tight. I should know for certain sometime this summer once all of my contract dates are finalized w/ exact dates & times. Just keep an eye on the schedule listed on the Secret Stories website later this summer when it gets updated again.

    With regard to preK, YES! Both four AND five year olds have identical acquisition times (2 weeks to 2 months) for the individual letters and sounds when acquired through motor memory, as compared to the standard full year or more when relying on cognitive processing, given the inherent developmental readiness issues at that age.

    You can share this information with them…. about the Better Alphabet Song/ individual letters and sounds, and encourage them to just try it out. I think It's always best to see things with your own eyes rather than trying to convince them, although I appreciate your trying to do so!

    I actually posted free pieces on TpT and made the vlogs so that anyone interested would be able to try out a few of the strategies & techniques and see the difference in when sharing these skills with the brain in mind, as opposed to the traditional way.

    I hope this helps, and again I thank you SO much for your post, and I hope to hear more, especially as your upper grades begin implementing in the Fall!

  6. Tawney L says:

    Our school has been using the Secret Stories all year in our pre-Kindergarten through 5th and we've seen a remarkable improvement across the board, with our primary K-2 grades actually scoring almost an entire YEAR above grade level on their end of year RRRs! I want you to know that I will be downloading every single one of your blog posts this summer and making them into packets for all of our teachers to have at the beginning of next school year, they will be beyond excited! I can't wait to get more "inside-info" into the secrets!
    THANK YOU!!!!!!

  7. Beatie Neece says:

    So much great info and I will definitely be sharing ALL of it with the rest of the teachers at my school, as we all use the Secret Stories and we absolutely love them, and so do our kids! They will be so excited to find out about your new blog, as we're already dedicated vlog followers!

    I only wish that there were more educational authors willing to take the time to share their personal insight into the strategies they create and connect with the teachers using them. The information you share is not just informative, but it's inspiring! Just reading this post makes me want to jump back into my classroom and take our Secrets to a whole new level!

  8. Alison Grey says:

    I am a follower of your blog and will be a first time kindergarten teacher next year! I do not know why I cannot comment, but hopefully I can still be entered. Thank you!

    Alison Gray |

  9. Katie Garner says:

    Thank you so much for your lovely message, as knowing that the Secrets are making a difference in your classroom and at your school is so wonderful to hear!

    As to encouraging kids to try alternative sounds, I think I will actually be doing the next post on how this works, but in a bit more detail, as it's actually SO MUCH EASIER than I think it might sound…. especially to those who do not use the Secrets and can't fathom their students even knowing ONE sound for some of the Secret patterns, let alone MULTIPLE ones!!

    These video clips provide a glimpse into how this flexible 'critical-thinking' model would look in Kindergarten…..

    Hopefully this will help show how easy (and incredibly powerful) this technique actually is…. especially with the earliest grade levels :)

  10. Katie Garner says:

    Wow, I didn't even know that you could download blog posts?!! But that's great, as that's what they're there for! So happy that you are finding them useful!

    Congratulations on your students' performance! That's so exciting, and you and your fellow teachers (and students!) should be very proud!!!

    I actually tell teachers that when sharing all of the SECRETS at one grade level (which is what you do) students at the primary grades will test, on average, approx. 1 to 1.5 years above grade level. This is due simply to aligning skills that are inherently NOT brain-freindly' with how our brains actually learn best, which is to feed its natural inclination to 'pattern-out' NEW information in such a way that it can be easily connected to what's ALREADY owned. Learners' ability to think through the various options when phonics rules don't 'exactly' apply is key to this, as otherwise, logic is lost, and so is the ability to 'pattern' (i.e. make sense of the skills).

    Whew, that was sort of a mini-post all to itself! Anyway, thanks again for the great news and very kind words!

  11. Katie Garner says:

    I'm thankful that you found it as well! That's why I encourage those interested and already following Deanna's awesome blog to follow my blog to follow mine if they want to get all of the posts, as I will be doing more posts on my blog than the couple per month I'm doing here.

    I will actually be adding to the VLOGS as well, and now have them linked/ posted directly on my blog, which makes it easier to know when new ones are posted, as I will announce it.

    As for connecting with the teachers using the Secrets in their classrooms, I LOVE LOVE LOVE getting opportunities to do so, as that's how I can see what works easily and what requires a little more info to ensure maximum effectiveness! I especially love getting to be in their classrooms when I'm out for school in services and even more so, getting the chance to interact with their students directly!!

    As for being inspiring, first of all, THANK YOU :) If nothing else, I think teachers need to be inspired if they and their students are to be successful, and some schools/ districts support teacher-inpsriation much better than others, especially in the current times. Getting teachers excited enough to jump into a new way of 'thinking and doing' is always my primary goal…. especially in workshops and sessions at conference! That, and making sure that they have everything they need to jump right in and try out some of the strategies the following day in their classrooms…. as nothing beats seeing your own "little Johnnys & Suzie's" do things in reading and writing that they have never even been close to doing before! LoL…. even while TYPING this I'm getting excited ;)

    Anyway, thanks so much for posting and letting me know that the info is helpful, it's much appreciated!!

  12. Katie Garner says:

    It's kind of hard unless you have a google or blogger account. I have opened my blog up so as to allow for anonymous commenting, although if spam begins to come in, I might have to change that. My only advice is to type a letter or two in the box and then hit the 'preview' button, as then you will be able to see the options for posting in the window. Then you can delete the letters and type your comment. Does that make sense??? :)

  13. Lynn Montgomery says:

    I would love to win a your Secret Stories kit. I teach first grade and I know my kids would love it. I have been promoting it with my whole team. I'm working on our PTA to buy it for us. Fingers crossed that I win!!

  14. Mrs. Armstrong says:

    I just discovered your blog, program and video and I love the thinking behind your program. Although I teach K, I feel your program could easily be used to help older students who are struggling. By the way, researching your program got me thinking about strange spelling phenomena and yesterday my husband and I sat around researching and discussing the etymology of the "ie" in words like friend and fiend. We are totally nerds!

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