All About The Vowel Team Syllable (Vowel Digraphs & Vowel Diphthongs)
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Continuing with my syllable series, learn what a vowel team syllable is and how to teach it using multisensory methods.
You can find all my syllable posts here. And you can read The 6 Types of Syllables here, where I explain what a syllable is, how to count syllables, and go over the 6 syllable types.
What is a vowel team syllable?
A vowel team syllable, also known as a vowel digraph or diphthong syllable, is a syllable with two vowels working together to make one sound.
It’s important to notice whether a vowel combination is reversed such as io in lion. In this case, you split the syllable between the i and o as this is not a vowel team.
Vowel Digraphs and Vowel Diphthongs
A digraph is when two letters spell one sound, and diphthongs are a special kind of vowel sound. So all vowel teams are digraphs but some are also diphthongs.
Vowel diphthongs are known as sliding sounds. These include oi/ow like in oil/boy and ow/ou like in cow/loud. They still make one sound but it’s not as clear or familiar, as the sound slides from the first vowel into the second. If you look in the mirror as you make a diphthong sound, you’ll notice the shape of your mouth changes.
Here are all the different types of vowel digraphs:
- Long A Vowel Teams: ai, ay, ea, eigh, ey
- Long E Vowel Teams: ee, ea, ey, ei, ie
- Long I Vowel Teams: ie, igh
- Long O Vowel Teams: oa, oe
- Long U Vowel Teams: ew, ue, eu
- Diphthong Vowel Teams: oi, oy, ou, ow, au, aw, oo
Unpredictable Vowel Teams
It’s also important to note that some vowel teams almost always make the same sound, but some make different sounds. For example, ai almost always makes the long a sound, but ea can make the long e, short e, or long a sound. These are known as unpredictable vowel teams.
Unpredictable vowel teams often follow spelling generalizations so these must be taught explicitly!
Vowel Team Words
You’ll see vowel teams and diphthongs in one syllable and multisyllabic words.
Many one syllable words include vowel teams so students don’t need to know how to do syllable division to start learning about this.
Here are some common vowel team words you can use to introduce the vowel team syllable:
You can download my long vowel word lists which include vowel team words for each long vowel sound for free by signing up below.
When should you teach the vowel team syllable?
This syllable is usually taught in first grade but it should be one of the last. Students should already be familiar with open, closed, final e, r-controlled, and consonant -le syllable types.
Teaching Vowel Team Syllables
As always, ensure you have students marking vowels and consonants when learning about syllables. This helps them see the syllable patterns so they can begin to break down words on their own.
Teach students the two vowels in a vowel team work together so they can’t be split up. The 2 vowels act like 1 vowel.
For vowel teams, I don’t have my students mark if it’s a long or short sound (with the breve or macron symbols), since you can’t do either with diphthongs. So I simply have them write a v below each vowel and draw a little scoop underneath that connects them to visualize that the 2 vowels make 1 sound.
Tips for teaching vowel teams:
Introduce vowel digraphs in isolation using phonogram cards or a sound wall.
Teach one vowel team at a time. This is especially important for struggling readers. I would focus on one pattern for at least 2 or 3 days until students can recognize them easily without prompting. Some students will need a week or longer.
Start with one syllable words then move on to multisyllabic words.
Use lots of visuals like color coding (same color for both vowels in a vowel team), letter tiles, phonogram cards, and posters like the one below.
Use etymology, teach homophones, and teach spelling generalizations to explain the different spelling patterns and rules.
For example, English words do not end in ‘u’ or ‘i’, which explains why some spelling patterns for vowel teams appear in the middle or end of the word.
Some kids get discouraged and confused because some patterns make more than one sound. Be sure to include some content to explain why this is the case so they don’t think “English is hard and doesn’t make sense and has all these exceptions!“
If they can understand why ea makes different sounds depending on the word, that will help them feel more confident in reading and spelling.
Teach vowel diphthongs last, and use mirrors so students can see how their mouth position changes. Focus on the most common vowel teams first like ea, ai, and ee. Diphthongs are a little trickier so save those for last. Using a mirror helps students correctly pronounce the sounds and notice slight differences.
In vowel teams, y and w act as vowels and not consonants. This is why when I introduce vowels I always say sometimes y and w act as vowels too.
I also avoid using that catchy little phrase “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking” because it is not always true.
You can download the Vowel Team Syllable Poster (along with the other 5 syllable types) for free in my freebies library.
Vowel Team Syllable Activities
This bundle below includes all my activities for long vowels, which includes vowel teams for each long vowel sound. Learn more about it here.
One of the first activities I do when teaching a vowel digraph is to isolate that pattern in words with color coding. Provide students with a list of words with vowel teams and use a highlighter to trace the vowel team within the word. From there you can use a short decodable passage and ask them to read and trace all the vowel team syllables they can find.
Some other multisensory writing ideas include air writing, tracing, and sand trays.
Have students use blocks to segment the sounds in words with vowel teams. Say or show the word and have students place a block in each box to represent each sound/phoneme. This helps them visualize vowel teams as one sound even though they contain 2 or more letters.
Students can also tap out the phonemes in a word as they spell it aloud.
Pictured below is my Winter Themed Word Mapping Mats that incorporate sound boxes, segmenting, blending, and writing all on one page.
Use phonogram cards or letter tiles that include vowel teams as one unit (instead of using separate a and e cards to make ea). The cards pictured below are available here.
Do Simultaneous Oral Spelling drills
Use SOS, a multisensory spelling strategy, to practice spelling words with vowel teams. Only use words with the vowel teams students already learned.
Review often by asking students how to spell vowel team sounds
For example, ask students “What says /ee/?” They should write/say all the different ways to spell the long e sound (only the ones they already learned) such as ee, ea, e_e, ei, ie, and ey. I would review this daily until they have learned them all. It only takes a few minutes and can be done orally with the whole class to save time.
Break apart multisyllable words
This would be one of the last activities I do with students once they are pretty strong with the vowel team. I like to write multisyllabic words with vowel teams on flashcards then have students follow the marking and splitting procedures (mark vowels, draw the scoop, split the word, cut along the split). You can do this with worksheets too.
Don’t forget to make it multisensory!
Remember that for struggling readers the multisensory aspect is critical. Regardless of the activity, incorporate at least 3 senses. If students are tracing, make sure they’re also vocalizing the sound. If students are blending using cards, again they can vocalize the sounds as they blend. You want them to see it, hear it, and write/touch it every time.
Want to remember this? Save All About The Vowel Team Syllable to your favorite Pinterest board!
For long u, you listed ue twice. Near the beginning of the article.
Thanks Sarah. I will go ahead and fix that now.
While I appreciate your efforts to assist younger students in learning ‘rules’ re: vowel sounds vis-à-vis spellings, there are multiple (and serious) problems with your approach/presentation here; for the sake of brevity and cohesion, only 3 are discussed below—all of which pertain to confusing terminology/examples:
“A vowel team syllable, also known as a vowel digraph or diphthong syllable, is a syllable with two vowels working together to make one sound”—If this is true, why do you present words such as “meat, tree, head, moon, awful,” etc. which feature only monophthong/pure vowel sounds without any diphthongs at all? Where’s your distinction between digraphs (which by definition comprise 2-letters combinations, and do not necessarily correspond to any single phoneme) and diphthongs (which can be formed by single vowel letters such as terminal -y in “try”—or even individual vowel letters ‘boxed’ between 2 consonants as in “side”)? Finally, what is your basis for the expression “two vowels [I think you mean vowel LETTERS] working together to make one sound”? Not only can many of the same “vowel team” constituents generate vastly distinct sounds (e.g. “boat” vs. “broad”; “rain” vs. “said”), but single-letter vowel sounds may be identical in pronunciation to your “vowel team” combinations (as in “goal-gold” or even Santa’s “ho” vs. garden tool “hoe”)
Dividing vowel teams into “predictable” vs. “unpredictable”—your own text contradicts the validity of such a distinction, since you immediately list “shoe & canoe” as “exceptions” after “toe”; we’ve already noted “boat vs. broad” & “rain” vs. “said,” and could easily add other UN-predictable variants (e.g. “prayer, Maya, been, does”) that call into question your categorization here. It seems inconsistent to list “pie-piece” under “unpredictable” while classifying “toe-shoe” as “predictable.” Rephrasing into MORE vs. LESS predictable vowel letter pairs—and shifting pairs such as -oe into the LESS predictable column—would greatly ease confusion. You yourself “avoid using that catchy little phrase ‘When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking’ because it is not always true”; oddly, you abandon your own logic with the “predictable-unpredictable” classification
“For vowel teams, I don’t have my students mark if it’s a long or short sound, since you can’t do either with diphthongs”—how do you reconcile this claim with your own “Long A Vowel Teams: ai, ay, ea, eigh, ey” list? your very sample words (e.g. “rain” and “play”) contain textbook examples of diphthongs, and you yourself list the relevant letter pairs as “Long…Vowel Teams.” Over and above the numerous potential problems with categorizing vowel sounds as “long or short” to begin with, you (once again) contradict your own rationale here. I want to link this webpage for my students in an English teacher-training program, but the lack of consistency in your approach/terminology makes this a dubious prospect
Hi Prof Steve J. Burns. I read your comment several times and am a little confused but will try to answer as best I can.
Your first point doesn’t make any sense to me. I have a paragraph all about the difference between vowel digraphs and diphthongs. I also talk about how many vowel teams can make different sounds, as in ea can make the long or short e sound. This post is only about vowel teams, not long vowels so I don’t address final silent e or open syllable vowels because those are in other posts all about just that.
The predictable/unpredictable list is just a helpful list to start off with and use as a guide. I never said they ALWAYS do anything. And there are always exceptions, especially with words that are not of English origin. We have to teach students to be flexible but give them a starting point to make sense of all the rules and patterns in English. The exceptions are taught as exceptions with the reasons why. This has been very helpful in the past.
I also don’t understand what you mean by the comment that I don’t mark vowel teams as long or short but then I listed words with vowel teams? I am referring to the macron mark when diagramming words with a long vowel sound. They are long vowel sounds but I don’t have students mark them with a macron as I do when working with open syllables or final silent e words.
I hope this clarified some of your concerns.
Please excuse the length of this reply; it’s always a more demanding task to explain one’s concerns than simply to raise questions about them. In any event, allow me to address some of your responses (this will be my final reply to you irrespective of whether you respond again—as is your right—or simply decide that we cannot have a ‘meeting of the minds’ on the issues below):
“Your first point doesn’t make any sense to me”–sorry to hear that: my concerns distill down to the “lack of consistency in your approach/terminology” noted in my original comment closing line
“I have a paragraph all about the difference between vowel digraphs and diphthongs”–which is fine (as far as it goes), except that 1] just above this “differences” paragraph (which features its own issues), you write: “A vowel team syllable, also known as a vowel digraph or diphthong syllable…” Is it hard to understand how treating “digraph” and “diphthong” as though they were interchangeable in this ‘definition’ confuses readers, esp. when you yourself acknowledge “the difference[s] between vowel digraphs and diphthongs” in the very next section? What is more, over the course of your post, you list at least 3 (quite distinct) ‘definitions’ of “vowel team”:
“A vowel team syllable, also known as a vowel digraph or diphthong syllable, is a syllable with two vowels working together to make one sound” [the full version of the sentence I quoted in part above]
“A vowel team syllable is a syllable with a long, short, or diphthong vowel sound that uses a letter combination for spelling” [taken from an image prominently featured near the top of your webpage]
“Vowel Team…A syllable with two vowels that make one sound” [near the middle of your page]
Several problems here: 1] why list 3 distinct explanations at all? come up with one, insert it early in the post, and stick to it consistently. this “threesome” approach can only generate confusion among readers; 2] the “two vowels” are NOT necessarily “working together to make one sound”—I tried to point this out using “ho,” hoping you would explain how the –e in a word such as “hoe” is “working together to make” the same sound that is ALREADY MADE WITHOUT the -e in a homophone: both forms are literally transcribed in identical fashion (as is the vowel sound in “toe” and no/go/so); 3] diphthongs are long vowels—why not simply write “a syllable with a long (including diphthong) or short vowel sound” in your 2nd definition? sure, you can also refer to diphthongs as “special” or “sliding” [linguistically, “gliding” would be more correct] vowel sounds, but they are “by nature…long vowels” (Demirezen, 2020, abstract). you can ‘de-mythologize’ these “tricky” sounds early on, and offer a wonderful service to young learners
“I also talk about how many vowel teams can make different sounds, as in ea can make the long or short e sound”—and /ei/ [as in steak]. the problem is that you do not consistently mention these “different sounds”; how simple (and helpful!) it would be for you to change—to take just one example—your 2nd “vowel team” definition above: inserting, “keep in mind that this sound can vary from word to word” after the definition clears up any potential for confusion. Telling readers this fact later down the page amounts to damage control; let them know from the very first mention of “vowel teams”—using clear, concise descriptions and helpful examples to pre-empt any confusion
“This post is only about vowel teams, not long vowels”—even omitting diphthongs (which are of course long vowels), I count approx. 25 references in your article to “long” vowels/vowel sounds (another point of confusion: you don’t consistently differentiate between vowel SOUNDS and vowel LETTERS)
“The predictable/unpredictable list is just a helpful list to start off with and use as a guide”—how “helpful” is a list that calls –oe endings “predictable,” only to immediately insert “exceptions”? since young readers see high frequency words such as “said, again” right alongside “rain, main,” they’re set up for confusion from the get-go. I proposed moving the –oe to “unpredictable,” and changing the lists to MORE and LESS predictable; this would be a great help to learners, since they’d know even before reading the lists that they should look for patterns, not rules, and be prepared for numerous “exceptions.” Again, even if you somehow sort this fact out over the totality of your post, readers have to sift through long stretches of text/images before they can ‘square the circle’ and fill in the gaps which you could easily have filled in for them, from the first mention of these “predictable” lists. You may not have “said that they ALWAYS do anything,” but you failed to emphasize exceptions—even for the so-called “predictable” vowel teams—beyond the –oe example
“We have to teach students to be flexible but give them a starting point to make sense of all the rules and patterns in English. The exceptions are taught as exceptions with the reasons why. This has been very helpful in the past.”—I see little consistency, and some tardiness, on this point; it’s very simple: Let readers know from the get-go, as you introduce each new definition/concept/approach, that there are exceptions, and list significant examples then and there instead of scattering disclaimers later in the article
“I also don’t understand what you mean by the comment that I don’t mark vowel teams as long or short but then I listed words with vowel teams? I am referring to the macron mark when diagramming words with a long vowel sound”—The issue here is trying to decipher your actual language from the webpage: “For vowel teams, I don’t have my students mark if it’s a long or short sound (with the breve or macron symbols), since you can’t do either with diphthongs”; how are readers supposed to understand “diphthongs” in the context of this sentence? are diphthongs synonymous with “vowel teams”? can they be “mark[ed]…long or short” [even without macron/breve symbols]? are they 2-letter combinations—aka “digraphs”? it’s impossible to tell. you add that learners should “draw a little scoop underneath that connects them to visualize that the 2 vowels make 1 sound,” yet your 3rd “vowel team” definition actually shows the 2nd letter in the vowel team being crossed out with a dotted line [see the VV & boat examples]! On the one hand, you caution against the “two vowels go walking” rule-of-thumb approach, yet add a visual aid that directly contradicts this cautionary point.
I’ll leave it at that. Your sample teaching materials look quite promising, and some of your ideas are probably helpful to certain learners/teachers; however, you are simply not consistent re: some usages & explanations—which is a serious concern for any educator, especially one attempting to utilize the already problematic “long-short” vowels-as-letters approach to early literacy.
Thank you for clarifying. I understand what you mean and will see how I can edit my post for clarification.
Is this real? Lol. I literally cannot believe that someone would take the time to comment so intrusively like this. There is nothing wrong with what she said. If you are teaching little learners Mr. Burns, I sure hope you are not getting into technicalities like this that basically destroys the whole flow of their learning. It’s simple, and the way she put it was perfect. You could probably spend your time dissecting something else.
What about “igh” as in the word high (long i sound) or “eigh” in the word eight (long a sound) or “ough” in the word though (not tough)? There seems to be conflicting definitions of vowel team on the internet whether it is just 2 vowels making one sound or can it be 2 or more letters.
What are your thoughts on this? 🙂
Those are all vowel teams since they can be more than 2 letters.