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This lesson defines vowel digraphs, introduces common digraphs of English, and presents common digraphs in a chart alongside example words.

The lesson also introduces several basic teaching techniques for helping learners read vowel digraphs correctly.

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What Is a Digraph?

A digraph is a combination of two letters that together spell a single sound. The word can be broken down into the prefix di, meaning two, and the word graph, referring to a written form. English spelling features many digraphs, both of consonants and vowels. Learners tend to acquire familiar consonant digraphs fairly easily, such as c + h or ch as in chair and s + h or sh as in ship.

Vowel digraphs are known to be more challenging for the learner, since the two distinct vowel letters beside one another, often in the middle of a word, must be understood to express only one sound. If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is! But don’t worry – the information below will help you to learn to recognize and organize vowel digraphs and provide you with teaching strategies for early readers.

Common Vowel Digraphs

Vowel digraphs include those that are simply doubled letters, such as the oo in moon and the ee in feet. Note that these digraphs represent a sound that is different from the sound made by a single instance of the letter alone, such as o in hot or e in bed.Other vowel digraphs are combinations of two different vowel letters that together represent a single sound, such as oa in coat, ai in rain, and ea as in peach. More challenging still for the learner are vowel digraphs that may represent more than one sound, depending on the word. For instance, the oo in moon is pronounced differently from the oo in book.

In addition, there are several digraphs that actually represent diphthongs, or two vowel sounds combined into one. For instance, the vowel digraph ou as in pout or oi as in coin represent a combined vowel sound that is really one vowel sound moving into another. No wonder new readers work so hard to master vowel digraphs!Finally, another diphthong that many teachers group with vowel digraphs are the sounds represented by a vowel letter plus the letter w or y, which together spell a vowel sound. Consider the digraph ow in the word grow or cow, ou in the word cloud and oy in the word toy – again, one sound moving into another.

Vowel Digraph Chart

Let’s take a look at a chart to help organize frequently used vowel digraphs!This chart includes a number of common vowel digraphs of English with two representative words illustrating their pronunciation. Some digraphs have more than one possible pronunciation, and are, therefore, listed twice.

Digraph Chart

Teaching Techniques

Most reading experts agree that vowel digraphs should be taught explicitly after the learner has mastered sounds for single vowel letters in a range of words.

One approach is to begin with the doubled vowel digraphs, such as ee in feet, as these are highly recognizable to the learner.Another useful approach is to group the digraphs by the sounds that they produce. For instance, there are a range of digraphs that make what is called the long /e/ sound, or the vowel sound produced in the word bee. In addition to ee, these digraphs include ie in field and ea in read. The learner can often master the range of vowel digraphs that produce the long /e/ sound by grouping rhyming words that are spelled differently, like bee and tea or field and peeled. Many early readers find this approach to vowel digraphs fun, and some great children’s literature is organized around this reading goal!Some vowel digraphs made up of two different letters can be taught by asking the learner to pay attention to the long vowel sound made by the first letter in the digraph.

This strategy has been summarized by the phrase, ‘when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.’ For instance, in the digraph ea in the word meat, the e letter can be understood to make the long /e/ sound, and the reader can ignore the a letter. A similar strategy can be used to teach that in the word rain, it is the first letter a in the digraph ai that represents the long /a/ sound, and the reader can ignore the letter i.

Unfortunately this method has many exceptions, like the ea in head and the ou in pout, so this can confuse some readers.Learning vowel digraphs is challenging to the new reader of English, and the reader should be expected to make many mistakes. For this reason, high frequency vowel digraph words like book and read can often be memorized, so that the student does not need to sound them out. Overall, constant practice with vowel digraph words will be essential to minimize reading mistakes and to encourage strong spelling skills as well. Even for experienced readers and writers, some vowel digraphs spellings like the ie in chief remain a challenge!

Lesson Summary

Vowel digraphs are a combination of two vowel letters that together spell either a single vowel sound or a diphthong, one vowel sound made by combining two vowel sounds.

Since vowel digraphs are challenging for new readers of English, a number of useful strategies have been developed to teach them including:

  • Grouping digraphs by the sound they make
  • Contrasting distinct digraphs using rhyming
  • Focusing on the initial letter in the digraph
  • Memorizing high frequency words containing digraphs

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