While many people think that English spelling is completely illogical and inconsistent, in reality about 98% of our words follow regular patterns and are quite comprehensible once you learn the phonograms and spelling rules. About 2% contain something irregular.
A customer emailed us recently to ask if we had a list of words that have "no logic or rules." However, I actually can't think of any English words that have no logic or rules. The words that we class as "exceptions" are one that contains some sound or spelling that is irregular, but generally the rest of the word still follows the typical patterns and can be decoded with ease. For example, it's very unusual for IE to be pronounced /ĕ/, as in the word friend. So the sound of that phonogram is an exception in that word. However, everything else in the word friend is completely typical and can be decoded easily with no special instruction.
Common words that contain exceptions
The following commonly-used words contain some sort of exception. All of them are very old English words that may have had a spelling shift over time or retained an earlier spelling as pronunciation shifted. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are some commonly-used ones we know of.
broad - Only commonly-used base word where OA says /ŏ/
bury - In many people's speech, the U in this word says /ĕ/, which is not one of its regular sounds. Some people pronounce this word with an /er/ sound, rhyming with worry; in this case, it is phonetically regular, since UR says /er/.
busy, business - The phonogram U does not normally say /ĭ/
color - It is irregular for O to say /ŭ/ here. Any vowel may say a schwa sound in an unstressed syllable, and O may say /ŭ/ next to a W, M, N, TH, or V in a stressed syllable, but neither of these rules accounts for why it says /ŭ/ in this word.
friend - The only commonly-used word where ie says /ĕ/
eye - EY doesn't normally say /ī/. The silent E at the end seems a little odd too, but it is actually not uncommon to add a silent E at the end of a two-letter noun (rye, ore, ewe).
I, you, thou - These words are phonetically regular, but they are exceptions to the otherwise consistent spelling rule "English words do not end in I, U, V, or J." We like to tell students "You and I are very special."
knowledge and acknowledge - OW doesn't normally say /ŏ/. The root word know is regular, since the two sounds of the phonogram OW are /ow-ō/, but somewhere along the line the pronunciation of the derivative word knowledge seems to have shifted.
muscle - The fact that C does not say /k/ before the L is irregular. Interestingly, the silent letter is pronounced in the derivative muscular.
of - The only word where f says /v/
one - The /w/ sound is not represented in the spelling. However, the spelling reflects the meaning of the root (also found in lone, alone, lonely).
says, said - The phonograms AY and AI do not normally say /ĕ/. The spelling follows the pattern seen in pay, pays, paid and lay, lays, laid, but the pronunciation of the vowel is unusual.
sew - The phonogram EW does not normally say /ō/
soccer - It is irregular for C to say /k/ before an E.
truth - All the phonograms say their usual sounds, but it is irregular for U to say its long sound in the middle of a closed syllable.
two - The W is not pronounced. However, the spelling reflects the root (also found in twice, twin, twelve, twenty)
wolf - The phonogram O does not normally say /ü/.
women - The phonogram O does not normally say /ĭ/.
Tips for teaching words with exceptions
When teaching these words to students, still focus on the sounds. Do not teach the word as a whole unit to be memorized by sight with no rhyme or reason. However, be sure to address what is irregular in the word directly, so that students understand that something unusual is happening with that letter or sound.
In Logic of English curriculum, we still have students sound the word out and write it from its sounds, but we make sure to give a specific cue for the phonogram that is breaking the rules so that students know what spelling to choose.
Then, when analyzing and marking the word, we write an X over any phonograms that are saying something besides their usual sounds:
If all the phonograms are saying regular sounds but the word breaks a spelling rule, you do not need to mark anything. However, you still want to discuss the fact that the word breaks the rules.
For example: What do you notice about the spelling of soccer? What sound is the C saying? That's right: it's saying its first sound, /k/, and it should say /s/. This word breaks the rule, doesn't it? About 2% of English words don't completely follow the phonograms and spelling rules. What's the rule about C? Let's say it together..."
Acknowledging the exceptions do exist and discussing what is unusual about them helps strengthen students' understanding of the rules. It also reassures them that most words do follow the rules and that you'll provide them with clear answers and one of them doesn't.
Finally, if there is anything in the word's history, meaning, or spelling that helps make some sense of the irregularity, discuss this with the students. For example, with two, discuss the way the spelling reflects the connection to twin, twice, and twenty, even though it is not normal for the W to be silent. With of, discuss the fact that f says its voiced pair sound, /v/, instead of its normal sound, /f/. This not only helps students realize that sometimes even the exceptions have some kind of logic behind them; it also makes it easier for them to remember how to spell the word.