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How to Teach Phonics to Big Kids and Adults: Consonant Digraphs

Quite a few new teachers get confused about the difference between consonant digraphs and consonant blends. In a quick Google search, I found plenty of confusion among these “reading experts.” As an MA reading specialist, let me give you the definitions, a way to remember the difference, some examples, a few teaching tips, a FREE whole-class assessment with audio file, an instructional scope and sequence, and instructional management tips. Also, let’s throw in a FREE set of five consonant digraph lessons with a short formative assessment. Wahoo!

Consonant Digraphs

Definition: Consonant digraphs are two (or three) letters which form one sound. Consonant blends are two (or three) letters which make two (or three) sounds.

How to remember the difference: When we are dealing with phonics, we are creating sounds from letters. As you know, phon means sound; so does son (think sonar)You also know that di means two and graph means writing (letters for our purpose). Thus, a consonant digraph is one sound, two letters. Don’t forget we also have vowel digraphs: one vowel sound with two letters. And now for consonant blends… When you blend spices in your favorite chili recipe, you can still taste the chili powder, salt, cumin, and cayenne pepper. Each spice keeps its individual flavor. Thus, a consonant blend puts together two or three letters, each keeping its own sound. Note: Be careful not to think of a blender regarding consonant blends. My Vitamix® takes away every flavor from every ingredient in my daily protein drink. Quick Joke: What do you get with a can of peas and a blender? Whirled Peas (World Peace if you haven’t had your second cup of coffee today).

Consonant Digraph Examples: The “h” Brothers

Teaching Consonant Digraphs

Consonant Digraphs

Teaching Tips

Make sure to teach the /hw/ sound for the “wh” digraph. The /h/ gives the breathy sound need for accurate pronunciation. The Middle English pronunciation before the Great Vowel Shift (beginning in about 1350 A.D.) was actually two sounds before they evolved into one. Contrast the /hw/ “wh” as in whale with the /w/ “w” as in wolf and you’ll hear the difference. Note: The sound-spelling cards I use in my Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program are all animals. Thankfully, there is a critter known as an “x-ray” fish. 

Make sure to teach the two sounds of the “th” spellings and “sh” spellings at some point. The differences are difficult to hear for most students (and many teachers). I suggest sticking with the voiced /th/ as in python and then moving to the unvoiced (the same with the “sh” consonant digraph). See the instructional sequence below for the blending sample words I use. Check out my article on “How to Teach the Voiced and Unvoiced ‘th'” if this confuses you.

Do not elongate the endings of consonant digraphs. I just got finished watching a video of a proud principal teaching a group of students the /sh/ consonant digraph. The principal was putting her index finger in front of pursed lips while she said (and had students repeat) “shhhhhhhhhh.” When the principal asked her students to blend the /sh/ + /ĕ/ + /d/, the students dutifully responded with “”shhhhhhhhhhed.” The perplexed principal wisely called on the teacher for help.

While we’re mentioning proper blending technique, don’t make that consonant blend end in /uh/. It’s a clipped /sh/, not /shuh/, etc. Check out my “How to Do Sound-by-Sound Blending” article  if you want to review.

Lastly, I don’t teach the “ph” consonant blend until we get to silent letters. It’s a Greek sound-spelling, but then you knew that!

Assessment, Instructional Scope and Sequence, Forming Groups, Time, Instruction, and Practice

When to Introduce Consonant Digraphs

Consonant Digraphs Instructional Sequence

The first step is to determine what is missing from the your students’ knowledge of the consonant digraph phonics patterns. Teachers have used my FREE reading assessments for years to pinpoint phonemic awareness, phonics, and sight words deficits. For the purposes of this article, the Consonant Sounds Phonics Assessment pinpoints which consonant digraph sound-spellings students have not yet mastered.

The second step is to follow a research-tested instructional scope and sequence. Most all explicit, systematic phonics programs begin with short vowels and layer on consonant sounds and consonant blends. Next, phonics programs begin with the long vowel sound-spellings or teach the silent final e sound-spellings. Following are the instructional sequence from the author’s reading intervention program and the silent final e animal sound-spelling cards used to introduce the names, sounds, and spellings.

The third step is to group students who have demonstrated that they have not yet achieved mastery with the consonant digraph sound-spellings. Teachers use a variety of small group formats. Literacy centers have become a popular option to provide remedial instruction within some centers (stations), while offering grade-level and/or accelerated instruction in other centers.

The fourth step is to set aside the necessary time to teach the consonant digraph sound-spellings. Initial instruction takes longer; however, remedial instruction can be accomplished quite quickly, because gap-filling builds upon some degree of prior knowledge, albeit a shaky foundation. Typically, five 20-minute workshops will facilitate mastery as indicated by formative assessments.

The fifth step is to provide effective instruction and practice for the consonant digraph sound-spellings and to use a formative assessment to determine mastery. Teachers need to have back-up lessons in case the student does not master the consonant digraphs on the formative assessment. A solid foundation will allow students to learn additional reading skills.

Get the Consonant Digraphs Phonics Lessons FREE Resource:

Teachers who would like to use my consonant digraphs phonics lessons and formative assessment are welcome to download this workshop from my Teaching Reading Strategies program:

Teaching Reading Strategies Reading Intervention Program

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Tier I and II Response to Intervention groups. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, 102 remedial spelling worksheets, expository comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages (same text) with word counts and timing charts recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 reading and spelling game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice,and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and special education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum.  Plus the video training modules teach you everything you need implement the program successfully. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

“This is just what I need! I have been searching for a resource to help my middle school SPED kiddos catch up to their peers and I can’t wait to implement this incredible product in my classroom!!!” Rating: 4.0

Elizabeth Lewis

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