How to teach vowel teams

Phonics, Phonemic Awareness, Letters and Sounds, Early Reading ELA K-2



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What are vowel teams?
A vowel team is a combination of letters that represent one vowel sound. They can be in the form of vowel diagraphs (e.g., ai, ea), diphthongs (e.g., oi, ou), or longer combinations of letters (e.g., igh, ough). Even though there are only 5 vowel letters in the English alphabet, there are about 18 different vowel sounds and vowel teams are used to differentiate between them.

Why are vowel teams important?
Many words are made up of vowel teams, so it is very important that children are able to decode and spell them in order to read and write. Many long vowel sounds in particular are spelled using vowel teams in English, so being familiar with vowel teams can help a child learn how to read and spell words correctly.

Tips for teaching vowel teams
Vowel teams are an integral part of systematic synthetics phonics instruction; in this type of instruction, children will learn the most common sound that each vowel team makes, they will see and hear examples of words that contain each vowel team, they will blend and segment these words, and they will also practice writing them.

Here are some more specific recommendations:

1. Start with the sounds and spellings that are the most common. For example, long /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/ are the most common sounds that vowel teams make. Long /a/ is more commonly written as ai rather than ay, so teach them in that order. Long /e/ is more commonly written as ee rather than ea, so teach them in that order. 

2. You can also share tips about what is often the case, e.g., ai is more commonly used at the beginning or in the middle of words, whereas ay is more likely to appear at the end (e.g., paint vs. day) to represent the same long /a/ sound. But explain that while there are common patterns, these are not definitive rules and may not work with all words.

3. Using vowel charts can also be helpful because it can help children compare the sounds and spellings of different vowel teams and in this way engrave them in their memory. Have a look at our vowel teams chart below -- it introduces vowel teams, their pronunciations, and example words with illustrations. Ask children if they can think of any other words that use these vowel teams!

And remember to be patient and systematic when teaching vowel teams as they may be tricky for some children to master.


Vowel teams chart

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Deep Dive

Learning the alphabet is the first step on every child’s reading journey. Research shows that children with prior knowledge of the alphabet learn to read more easily and more fluently, so it’s vitally important that the alphabet is taught in a playful and engaging way.

When learning their ABCs, children have to understand that each letter has a different shape and name, and that letters combine to form words. By making it clear that the letter A is not just for apple but also for avocado, children learn that A makes a constant sound across different words. Learning the most common sound that each letter makes is an essential, foundational skill that will be built on later when children encounter phonics.

Read our report, A Deep Dive Into Phonics, for more!

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