R Controlled Vowels – The R Combination Syllable

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Next up in my syllables series is the r-combination syllable and r controlled vowels. In this post, I’ll explain what the r-combination syllable is and how to teach it using multisensory methods so your students can read r controlled vowels.

If you missed the previous syllable posts, you can find them all here.

r controlled vowels poster graphic

What is an r controlled vowel?

An r-controlled vowel is any vowel followed by an r. The r changes the sound that vowel makes.

R controlled vowels are often called “Bossy R” because the r takes over and makes the vowel make a new sound.

The er, ir, and ur all make the same sound /er/ as in her, bird, and fur.

But ar and or are a little different, as they have more than one sound.

Ar usually makes the sound in car, but can also make the sound in beggar and arrow.

Or usually makes the sound in corn, but can also make the /er/ sound as in the word doctor.

What is an r combination syllable?

This is a syllable with an r controlled vowel. An r-combination syllable always has at least one vowel followed by r (ar, er, ir, or ,ur, ear).

How to teach r controlled vowels

My favorite way to introduce r controlled vowels is to tell students the ‘bossy r’ makes the vowel say a new name.

Marking R Controlled Vowels

First, as always, ‘spot and dot’ the vowels by putting a dot above each vowel. Then write a v or c below each vowel and consonant, as pictured below. All this helps to clearly see the pattern vr.

vr syllable pattern

I learned a unique technique when I worked at a dyslexia school that taught students to mark an upside down v over the vowel and r, kind of like drawing a roof over the 2 letters, to show that they go together.

Some people draw circles and that works too. The point is to come up with a way to isolate vowel and the r visually so the student can easily see the pattern.

Introduce the ar and or, before er/ir/ur

Because ar and or don’t sound the same it’s easier to start with these two, then move on to er/ir/ur which can confuse struggling readers.

You can teach er/ir/ur together since they all make the same sound.

vr syllable poster

Activities to teach r controlled vowels

There are a variety of multisensory activities you can use to teach and reinforce the vr syllable. Below are a few easy options.

It’s a good idea to have a list of ar, er, ir, or, and ur words to use for these activities. You can download my r controlled words list when you sign up for my library of free resources here.

r controlled words list

I will be creating resources for all of these soon so stay tuned! In the meantime, subscribe to my list get access to all my literacy freebies!

1. Highlight the vr syllabe in words

Using a decodable text, have the student trace or highlight the syllable pattern vr in every word. It can be from a list of words or an actual passage like the one pictured below.

If you can’t write on the text, find the vr words, write them on a paper, and highlight the vr pattern there.

highlight r controlled vowels in a decodable text

2. Sort words with r controlled vowels

You can do this with cards or use a list and write the words in groups. Students could also play a memory game matching the same vr pattern in words, similar to the picture below.

phonics memory game

3. Play a board game where you can incorporate flashcards with r controlled vowels.

As always, you can turn any board game into a phonics game by adding flashcards with your target words/sounds. This is a cheap, low prep solution, especially great for homeschoolers. The only change you have to make is to have players read/write/highlight/segment (choose 1 or more) a word from the deck of cards with the target sound.

Of course, you could also find printable games that focus on r controlled words. There are tons of free printable games on Teachers Pay Teachers. Just search for “bossy r games’ and select free on the left side to only see the free options.

4. Transform CVC words into Bossy R words

Do blending drills where the student reads a CVC word, then you insert an r after the vowel and the student reads the new r controlled vowel words.

Here is an example:

  • Show the word cat using letter tiles or phonogram cards
  • Have the student read the word aloud
  • Talk about the vowel sound and syllable pattern
  • Insert an r after the a to make the new word cart
  • Talk about the new vowel sound ar
  • Have the student read the word aloud

You could also go backward, where you start with the word cart, remove the r, and read the new word cat.

5. Segment words with r controlled vowels

Segmenting really helps students understand and see that the vr stay together to make one sound. You can use my free printable Elkonin boxes template for these activities.

segmenting words with r controlled vowels

You can also use manipulatives to represent each sound and just use flashcards or written words (using large letters). Use one manipulative to represent each sound in the word.

segmenting words with r controlled vowels


Make sure to download my free 6 syllable types posters for your classroom from my freebies library, which includes the VR syllable poster shown above. I like to print out the reference sheet with all 6 syllable types for my students and place it in a plastic sleeve for them to reference as needed.

I will be creating resources for all of these soon so stay tuned! In the meantime, subscribe to my list get access to all my literacy freebies!

Check out all my syllable posts here.

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

Want to remember this? Save R Controlled Vowels – The R Combination Syllable to your favorite Pinterest board!

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