Phonics | Spelling

How To Teach Long U Words

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Last up in my series of long vowel sounds, I’m sharing tips and tricks to teach long u words! Because there are two ways to pronounce long u, it is the most complex of long vowel sounds to teach. I’m going to break down each of the eight ways to spell the long u sound, and the best activities to help you teach long u words to your students.

Looking for a long u word list? You can download the list pictured by joining my email list below.

long u words list

Two Sounds For Long U!

Yes, long u can make 2 different sounds! I know I didn’t learn that in school but it’s true. Let’s look at an example below.

Say tube and cube. Notice how u in tube makes more of an /oo/ sound while in cube it sounds more like /y/ /oo/. Those are the two different long u sounds.

There is some confusion and discussion over whether the /y/ /oo/ sound is a diphthong (2 vowels making 2 sounds together, like oi/oy). Truly, it doesn’t matter what it’s called as long as you teach students how to read and spell them correctly.

Now let’s go over the different ways to spell these sounds.

2 sounds of long u

Seven Ways To Spell Long U

The long u sound can be represented by 7 different spelling patterns:

  1. u – music
  2. u_e – mule
  3. ue – rescue
  4. eu – feud
  5. ew – few
  6. oo – food
  7. ou – soup

The majority of these are vowel teams, so students should already know the open, silent e, and vowel team syllables. Students should also be able to find the base word, as some of these rules apply to the base word even if it has a suffix.

Spelling Generalizations for Long U

U alone

At the end of an open syllable, u makes the long u sound (says its name) and this is one of the most common ways of spelling the long u sound. Some examples include pupil, tulip, and student. It can make either the /oo/ or the /y/ /oo/ sound. Students must understand how to split words into syllables and know what open syllables are.

U_E Spelling Pattern

The u silent e spelling pattern is also common, but much less than u alone. This one is usually in the middle of a base word. Examples include cute, rule, and fume. It can make either the /oo/ or the /y/ /oo/ sound. Of course, students should be confident with the magic e syllable.

EW Vowel Team

Much less common is the ew spelling of the long u sound in the middle or end of a base word. This is another one that can make both long u sounds. Examples include few and dew.

UE Vowel Team

UE usually spells the long u sound at the end of a word following a consonant sound. Examples include due and cue. As you can see it can make both long u sounds. This is not used very often.

OO and OU Vowel Teams

These two are also pretty common, but the oo spelling is the most common.

OO can be in any part of the word while ou making the long u sound is usually in the middle of a word.

EU Vowel Team

Long u spelled eu is pretty rare. Examples include feud and Europe. This one always makes the /yoo/ sound.

Tips For Teaching Long U Words

2 sounds of u classroom poster

How to teach the difference between /y/ /oo/ and /oo/

There isn’t really a rule for when the u says /oo/ or /y/ /oo/. They both have to be explicitly taught.

I got this idea from the Phonics & Spelling Through Grapheme Mapping book. Use the words mew and moo, with a picture of a cat for mew and a picture of a cow for moo.

Say this: “Say mew. Now, say mew without /m/.” Answer: /y/ /oo/

Then do the same with moo.

Say this: “Say moo. Now, say moo without /m/.” Answer: /oo/

Students should be able to clearly hear the difference in the sounds when doing this activity. You can use the picture of the cat and cow to help guide students on the correct pronunciation, although most won’t need this.

When students are sounding out words and they don’t know which sound to go with, tell them to try both and see which sounds right.

Syllbication & Sounding Out Words

Remember that students should always split unknown words into syllables as they try to sound them out.

Students should first break the word into its syllables, and try to eliminate some spelling options. So for example, if they are trying to spell the word human, they should know it won’t be with ew because that spelling option is usually at the end of a base word. If they still ask, you can cue them with something like ‘it’s the end of a syllable so what do you think can go there?’ Guide them to choosing the correct spelling pattern.

You can also use the guide words approach, where you choose one guide word for each spelling pattern to use as the reference. So for ew, you can use the word few. Then you can cue by saying, “u like in few“.

Also, because there are multiple options expect students to get them wrong sometimes, and tell them this! It’s ok if they make mistakes as long as it’s another valid spelling option and not something that doesn’t follow any rules. Through repeated exposure and practice they will eventually internalize the correct spelling pattern for words.

Lots of practice and repeated exposure are the names of the game with the long u sound. Do a variety of activities repeating the words as many times as you can.

Long U Activities & Lesson Ideas

Phoneme Grapheme Mapping – This is a great activity that really isolates the phonograms for students to practice. You can get the Phonics & Spelling Through Grapheme Mapping book and follow the long u lesson, or use my long u word list to do the same activity using sound boxes. See below for an example.

long u sound boxes activity

Create short stories to help anchor the spelling patterns. – Group similar words together and create a short story using them to help students remember them For example, with oo, you could say ‘The pool was too cool so we ate our food’ or something like that. Draw a picture or create your own poster with images of words with this spelling pattern and put it up in your room.

SOS – If you don’t already know what Simultaneous Oral Spelling is, then check out this post here. I love this multisensory spelling method for practicing spelling. And you can do this whole class or one on one making it really easy to use in any setting.

multisensory spelling activity

Dictation – This is another fantastic activity but I would do this after you have spent some time on long u because it is harder for some students. Also when dictating words, give students a clue about the spelling such as telling them it’s a vowel team or open syllable. I often dictate words that all have the same spelling pattern to avoid these problems.

Sorting – Sorting is always a good idea when you have multiple options for spelling. You can play matching games like memory, just sort them into piles/columns, or create any game that requires sorting by spelling pattern. This builds phonemic awareness so it’s always a good activity for all students.

You can also sort by color coding the vowel team or spelling pattern in the words. I took the list from the SOS activity, then had my student highlight each vowel team in a specific color to more visually show the groups.

Picture cue cards – Create visual graphics of tricky words, homophones, and homographs. These picture cues really help students remember which pattern to use. I suggest you make these using index cards and keep them in a baggie or box for reference. See an example below (it’s for a long o sound but you get the idea).

Games – Of course, I always include games because it’s just so easy to add a stack of flashcards to any game and make it educational! Use an easy to play board game where students need to pick up a card on their turn and add a task like reading the word aloud and sorting it, or asking another player to spell it, or even something as simple as having them air write the word after reading it aloud. Or print off a teacher-made game from Teacher Pay Teachers.

I typically use the printable board game pictured below (which you can get for free in my library after joining my email list). I create a stack of long u words flash cards and play, having students pick up a card and read it aloud then write it on their turn.

printable phonics board game for long u words activity

Constant Review – Remember to keep these spelling patterns in constant review after they are learned, so they are not forgotten. Using a sound wall or phonogram drills are great ways to do this without it taking up a lot of time.

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8 activities to teach the long u sound to struggling readers pin image

If you’re looking for more tips on teaching reading to struggling learners, check out these other posts:

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