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Digraphs and Diphthongs | Academic Language for Reading Instruction

In a recent forum on reading instruction, a teacher asked the following question:

Phonics Question
Hi guys. Would you consider ow and igh vowel teams? If not, how would you classify them? I’ve recently created a silent e resource and would like to create another resource that addresses the other long vowel spelling patterns but am not sure how to title it. Thanks in advance for your help.

The responses concurred that vowel teams was an appropriate “title.” Now, that got me thinking: Are the titles, terms, or classifications really that important? Does it make sense to use kid friendly terminology?

I read a few comments, but stopped at this one:

Ow is a digraph and igh is a trigraph but I doubt the name matters that much as long as the student understands what sounds the letters make when they show up together in a word.

Now, that got me writing: Here’s how I responded…

You are absolutely right that “ow” and “_igh” are a digraph and a trigraph, respectively.

However, I do think our language of instruction matters, and you prove the point. From the initial question in the post, we assume that the teacher is talking about the

"ow" Spellings

Digraph and Diphthong “ow” Spellings

“ow” spelling (after all, the “igh” certainly is a spelling); however, the “ow” spelling can reflect both a digraph sound (1) (“ow” as in okapi) or diphthong sounds (2) (“ow” as in cow). To get technical, the “ow” is a long /o/ spelling and may appear anywhere in a syllable, but the “ow” is a /ow/ diphthong spelling only at the end of a syllable (hence the space before the “_ow” spelling).

I, like most teachers, am always looking for a way to simplify our language of instruction for our students. However, in a recent revision of my Animal Sound-Spelling Cards, I’ve decided to drop the “vowel teams” and classify as the more precise “vowel digraphs” and “diphthongs.” I know… I hate those term names, too. But…

When we simplify instruction, we create confusion for students later on. After all, phonics is all about sound-spellings. To be able to properly blend sounds and words, readers have to be able to hear, break apart, and write the sounds. And students have to know that the “ow” spelling reflects different sound options. How cool is it, when a teacher writes “ow” on the board and a precocious (or well-taught) kiddo asks, “Which one, Ms. Gomez, ‘a red card or a purple card’?’ Or even better, “Is it the ‘okapi or cow’?” Or even better, “Is it a ‘digraph or diphthong.’?” Or be still my beating hear… “Does that ‘ow’ have a space after it? Where does it appear in the syllable?”

These insightful questions and problem-solving can only take place when the proper academic language is learned. Teaching the term, “vowel teams” would probably not elicit those same questions. We’re not talking about distinctions without differences here; the academic language matters.

BTW, I see the same issue in grammar instruction. When we try to use kid-friendly terms in place of academic language, we create more problems than we solve. For example, I used to struggle with using the term, modify. I used “talk about” for my fourth-graders or “describe or explain” for my seventh-graders. However, these terms certainly did not mesh with the other language of instruction I used for modifiers: Adjectives (How Many? Which One? or What Kind?) or Adverbs (How? When? Where? or What Degree?). In other words, scaffolding the meaning of the term, modifier, is much easier (and more accurate) in the long run, than using “kid-friendly” terms.

So, with respect to the good question of this post, I would not go with “vowel teams.” My two cents (or really four cents… this was a long response, sorry!). I suggest using the BIG WORDS and layering in meaning as needed.

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