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Vowel Teams: What We Never Learned, Explained

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Vowel Teams are tough!  In fact, many kids can’t successfully decode and encode (read and spell) until they understand these higher-level concepts.  The problem is that many teachers never really had explicit instruction in phonics themselves. The result is we have an ambiguous, confusing part of our language that is often glossed over.  Let’s simplify and break it down.

Vowel Teams are two vowels, or sometimes a vowel/consonant combo, that makes a new vowel sound. The first thing to understand is that there are vowel teams that always make the same sound, and vowel teams that can make more than one sound.

Predictable Vowel Teams always make the same sound. These are the predictable vowel teams: ai, ay, oa, oe, ee, and igh.

Teach the meanings of the words predictable and unpredictable. Students will then know that whenever they see one of these predictable vowel teams, they can be sure of the sound it makes.

Location! Location! Location! When it comes to vowel teams, location determines which vowel team we use. For example, ai says /ā/ in the beginning or middle of a word; ay says /ā/ only at the end of a syllable or word.

You can see an example of a predictable vowel team Orton Gillingham Lesson here.

We also use explicit teaching cards that have the vowel team, sound, example word, and picture as part of our weekly routine. They give kids a tangible visual for these abstract ideas. You can find our Vowel Team E.T. Cards here. You can practice with these cards with this video!

Unpredictable Vowel Teams are two vowels that make different sounds in different words.  Here’s where things get tricky. Explicit teaching must occur! Long  /ī/ can be spelled five different ways.  We cannot expect kids to just “pick it up!”

The unpredictable vowel teams are: ea, ie, oo, ow, and ou, ew, ue, ei, ey, and ui.We break unpredictable vowel teams into a basic and advanced set. This is the basic set. You can see that ea has three different sounds. Again, often the location in the word gives the hint of which vowel team to use.

ow says /ow/ at the end of a word or followed by an l or n.

ou says /ow/ in the middle of the word.

Check out our full Vowel Teams Simplified Anchor & Poster Pack free the month of April in Reading Rev’s Free Resource Library!

Finally, we have diphthongs.  This is when it gets really crazy!  Diphthongs are vowel teams that make a sliding sound. The mouth starts in one place and ends in another.  They also can make the sliding sound of the diphthong in some words and the long vowel sound in others. Teach diphthongs using mirrors so kids can see how their mouth position changes with these sounds.

These have also been called “whiny” or “emotion” teams because they sound full of emotion. The position still matters!

Technically, some vowel pairs can be a vowel team or a diphtong depending on the sound. The team OW can say / ō/ as a vowel team and /ow/ as a diphthong. We do not split hairs when talking about these terms with students. You can decide how in-depth you would like to teach.

We explicitly teach all of these vowel teams one week at a time. Do NOT attempt to teach them all at once. You can find the Reading Rev Scope and Sequence in the FREE Resource Library. AI/AY is taught for one week.  OI/OY is another. These patterns should be taught with explicit instruction, pictures, note catchers, word sorts, andgames.  Multi-sensory instruction is key!  And then, review, review and review some more. 

Reading Rev’s 4-Part, Phonics and Spelling Program includes all the vowel teams and diphthongs. To find out how this system can provide initial learning, student spelling packets, corresponding skill-based passages, and in-depth teacher guides, check this out!

Join us for our 3-day conference if you could use a little explicit teaching yourself!  We can’t wait to get you excited and confident! You can find out more about our next professional development class here!

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