Posts Tagged ‘digraphs’

Syllable Transformers

Every teacher and parent has heard about transformers: the movies, the action characters, etc. If you’re a parent of a younger child, you know all about Bumblebee.

Since the dawn of the Transformers in 1984, the spunky little Autobot called Bumblebee has been a fan favorite. Why? He was the underdog. He was small, and he was one of the weaker Transformers, but his heart was huge and he showed great bravery on the battlefield. As a result, he was an admired and gentle friend not only to humans, but to his peers as well. And it didn’t hurt that his alternate mode was a cute little yellow Volkswagen Beetle. He now has at least six other transformations!

What if we could apply that same transformer concept to beginning reading and reading intervention? We can with Syllable Transformers.

FREE Unit on Syllable Transformers

Syllable Transformers

As a reading specialist working with struggling older readers in the 1990s, I had the pleasure of learning from the late Dr. John Sheffelbine from California State University at Sacramento. John was a self-described “phonicator” and created the BPST (Basic Phonics Skills Test) in its various iterations and the Scholastic Phonics Readers. One powerful set of lessons that John developed dealt with open and closed syllables. An open syllable is one which ends in a long vowel e.g. bay; a closed syllable ends in a consonant and the vowel is short e.g. bat.

John hypothesized that the best way to learn these open and closed syllable rules was to practice them together: to see how the vowel sound transforms from one syllable pattern to another. Additionally, because educators were transitioning from the whole language philosophy to a phonics-based approach, many students over-relied on sight words and syllables, rather than upon applying sound-symbol correspondences. The instructional implications were clear that practice in real syllable patterns would not solve the problem for these “look and say” syllable guessers. The answer was to use nonsense syllables. Brilliant!

I tried John’s “Syllable Transformations” and they worked wonders. However, I could see the power of expanding John’s idea to other syllable patterns. I also tweaked his approach to make the methodology a bit more “user-friendly” and “technologically-savvy” (I typed them up and displayed them on a machine we used to call the overhead projector.)

Years later I developed my own comprehensive reading intervention program (promo below), and I included Syllable Transformers as part of the weeks 9–13 instruction in both the half-year intensive and full-year program implementation. Teachers and students love this fast-paced whole-class response activity. I’m sending all of these lessons to your email inbox with the FREE download at the end of this article.

Week 9: Open and Closed Syllables

A vowel at the end of a syllable (CV) usually has a long vowel sound. This pattern is called an open syllable. The syllable following begins with a consonant. Example: below.

A vowel before a syllable-ending consonant (VC) is usually short. This pattern is called a closed syllable. The syllable following begins with a consonant. Example: bas-ket.

Weeks 10–11: Silent Final e Syllable Rule

The silent final e makes the vowel before a long sound, if only one consonant sound is between the two (VCe). For example, lately.

Weeks 12–13: Vowel Teams Syllable Rule

Usually keep vowel teams together in the same syllable. For example, beau-ty.

Syllable Worksheets and Derivative Worksheets: Following the Syllable Transformers, we continue learning the more complicated syllable patterns with real word blending.

Check out this quick video on how to teach Syllable Transformers: Syllable Transformers


Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive assessment-based reading intervention curriculum, the Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLEIdeal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program. Phonological awareness, phonics, syllabication, sight words, fluency (with 128 YouTube modeled readings), spelling, vocabulary and comprehension. The 54 accompanying guided reading phonics books each have comprehension questions, a focus sound-spelling pattern, controlled sight words, a 30-second word fluency, a running record, and cleverly illustrated cartoons by David Rickert to match each entertaining story. These resources provide the best reading intervention program at a price every teacher can afford.

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

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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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The Teaching Reading Strategies (Reading Intervention Program) is designed for non-readers or below grade level readers ages eight-adult. Ideal as both Tier II or III pull-out or push-in reading intervention for older struggling readers, special education students with auditory processing disorders, and ESL, ESOL, or ELL students. This full-year (or half-year intensive) program provides explicit and systematic whole-class instruction and assessment-based small group workshops to differentiate instruction. Both new and veteran reading teachers will appreciate the four training videos, minimal prep and correction, and user-friendly resources in this program, written by a teacher for teachers and their students.

The program provides 13 diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files). Teachers use assessment-based instruction to target the discrete concepts and skills each student needs to master according to the assessment data. Whole class and small group instruction includes the following: phonemic awareness activities, synthetic phonics blending and syllabication practice, phonics workshops with formative assessments, expository comprehension worksheets, 102 spelling pattern assessments, reading strategies worksheets, 123 multi-level fluency passage videos recorded at three different reading speeds, writing skills worksheets, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards (includes print-ready and digital display versions) to play entertaining learning games.

In addition to these resources, the program features the popular Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable books (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each 8-page book introduces two sight words and reinforces the sound-spellings practiced in that day’s sound-by-sound spelling blending. Plus, each book has two great guided reading activities: a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns and 5 higher-level comprehension questions. Additionally, each book includes an easy-to-use running record if you choose to assess. Your students 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. These take-home books are great for independent homework practice.

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

FREE DOWNLOADS TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING RESOURCES: The SCRIP (Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict) Comprehension Strategies includes class posters, five lessons to introduce the strategies, and the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks.




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W Vowels and Y, L, H, M, R, and N While We’re At It

The W is a Vowel Sometimes

Save the W!

Save the w! (As a vowel, that is)

Wow, it’s rare for me to disagree with Grammar Girl… As a reading specialist, we love rules. If a word doesn’t fit, we figure a way to make it do so:) My speech therapist colleagues will back me up on this generalization.
In a related article, Grammar Girl reminds us that a vowel is a sound, not a letter. Nicely done! We form these sounds into two ways. 1. Some vowel sounds are made with the mouth in one position and with one sound. These vowel sounds are called monophthongs. Examples: got, go, know 2. Other vowel sounds start with the mouth in one formation as one vowel sound and slide into another formation as two vowel sounds. These vowel sounds are called diphthongs. Examples: coin, joy, out, and cow.
Grammar Girl states that “you could argue that W does indeed represent a vowel.” She cites the diphthong /ow/ as her example. But then she continues, “maybe to you the word ‘cow’ sounds like it ends with the consonant ‘wuh’ instead of the vowel ‘oo.’” Just as with the diphthong ‘oy,’ phoneticians disagree.”
Yikes! Houston, we’ve got a problem. In fact, we have a few. To be picky, it’s not the consonant, “wuh.” All consonants have clipped sounds. When we teach students, we blend /w/ /e/ /s/ /t/ (four sounds), not “wuh” est. Also, the vowel “oo” does not have the /ow/ sound, it has the /oo/ as in rooster or /oo/ as in foot sound.
Now the to meat of the matter regarding the w vowel sound. Okay, vegetables for my vegan friends.
To say that “…phoneticians disagree that the w is not a vowel, but may indeed be a consonant” is news to me. If so, these phoneticians are certainly making exceptions to our cherished rules. In fact, they have now added a new sound-spelling for the /ow/ sound: the _o or o_ as in /c/ /o/ /w/. They also have violated our CVC syllable rule, because their new /o/ is certainly not a short vowel sound.
Furthermore, Grammar Girls offers this solution to the problem of identifying a w as a vowel at the end of the diphthong: “So my recommendation is just to say that the combination O-W represents the diphthong “ow,” and stop there, just like we did for the O-Y and the diphthong ‘oy.’”
This solution seems an “easy out” to the argument as to whether or not the w can serve as a vowel, but in the real world of teaching students to read, this solution is counterproductive.
Somehow, Grammar Girl took us back to letters, not sounds, for vowels. Grammar Girl recommends saying, “The O-W represents the dipthong ‘ow’ …the O-Y… the diphthong ‘oy.'” No. We’ve already established that vowels are sounds and that the diphthong /ow/ has two distinct sounds. It really does matter that the w is a vowel.
Practically speaking, beginning readers, remedial readers, students with auditory processing challenges, and ESL, EL, and ELD students need to learn not only the a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y monophthongs, but also the diphthongs as well. Again, a vowel sound may actually have two sounds and students have to practice their mouth formations, sounds, and the sound-spelling options.
When students read cow, we want to hear three separate sounds: one consonant /c/ and two vowel sounds distinctly pronounced as /ow/. Without all the mumbo-jumbo, we teach students that cow has two vowel sounds spelled as a vowel team.
Now that we’ve saved the w as a vowel sound, let’s stir stir up the pot a bit more. Other letters (in addition to our cherished w) may also serve as vowels. Examples: h and y as in rhy/thm, l as in bu/gle, r as in mur/der, ar/mor, mir/ror, m as in bottom, and n as in mutton.
Linda Farrell has a nice article on the difference between digraphs and diphthongs with plenty of examples HERE.

I’m Mark Pennington, author of the Teaching Reading Strategies intervention program and the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books.

Get the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books, Diagnostic Assessments, and Running Records FREE Resource:

Guided Reading Phonics Books Literacy Center

Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books





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Vowel Team Spelling Games

Alternatives to Words Their Way

The Problem with Words Their Way

Developing spellers often struggle in the “Within Word” stage of spelling development. The key challenge for spellers within this spelling stage involves the vowel sound-spellings. The vowel combinations are especially challenging. Both vowel digraphs (two vowel spellings producing one sound), such as “aw” as in hawk, and vowel diphthongs (two or more vowel spellings producing more than one sound, such as “ow” as in towel, are frequently called vowel teams.

The following three spelling games will help your developing spellers both recognize and practice these vowel team spellings. First, learn which vowel sound-spellings that your students don’t know with an effective diagnostic spelling assessment. The games should not be played until the vowel team spelling pattern has been introduced with plenty of examples. Students should also have some practice in spelling the vowel team spelling pattern in the context of dictations and sentence writing before play because the games are designed as reinforcement and practice. The games will help your remedial readers discriminate among similar vowel sound-spelling patterns. Oh, by the way… the games are fun!

Word Jumbles

-Overview/Object of the Game

Each vowel team sound-spelling pattern has a multi-syllabic word jumble. The jumble is a word that includes the vowel sound-spelling with all the letters re-arranged. The object of the game is to make as many words as possible out of the word jumble and then to try and guess the entire word.


Write out the unscrambled word on one side of a 3 X 5 card and the jumbled word on the other. All students need to play is a sheet of binder paper and a pencil.

Divide your spellers up into small groups of three or four students, clustered around a desk or table. The students must be seated, in order to write.


Place the card on the desk or table, jumbled side facing up. Give a three minute time limit for students to write down as many words as they can find within the word jumble. Instruct the players to turn over the card.

Students take turns sharing their list, spelling each out loud. Award ten points for the whole unscrambled word, if spelled correctly. Additionally, add on one point for each correctly spelled word and  two points for a word that no one else in the group finds. Students total their points to see who is the winner.

For example, for the “_ay” vowel team long a spelling, the word payment has the word jumble, APETNYM. The jumble includes these words:

ape              ten            tap       yet       map     man     pay      pat       many   mane    meant  tape

Word Jumble List

Sound-Spelling   Word              Word Jumble

Long a Sound

“a__e”                         carefully          yluflarec

“ai__”                          straining          ginianrts

“__ay”                         betrayal           tylaaebr

“ei”                               freighter          hefrgiret

Long e Sound

“__ee”                         meetings          mtsgniee

“ea”                            teachers           srehcaet

“__y”                           leisurely           ylurelies

“i__e”                          tambourine      neuriboamt

“[c]ei”                          ceiling              ginclie

Long i Sound

“i__e”                          provided          dideprvo

“__igh”                        frightened       tndeehgirf

“__y”                           beautify           fyiauetb

“__ie”                          untied              teunde

Long o Sound

“o__e”                         hopeful            plefuoh

“__oe”                         mistletoe         stelimeot

“oa__”                         groaned           anodegr

“ow”                            ownership        phisernow

Long u Sound

“u”                               musical            csualim

“u__e”                         usefulness       uefessflns

“__ew”                        curfew             furcwe

“_ue”                           fueling             inufegn

oo as in food Sound

“oo”                             toothache        eooatthch

“u”                               cruising            rciuisgn

“u__e”                         attitude            tttiadeu

“__ew”                        unscrewed       dweenuscr

“_ue”                           barbecued        ecduberab

oo as in foot Sound

“oo”                             understood      ouorsdtden

“__u__”                       sugarless          ragulsses

oy Sound

“oi__”                          poisonous        oponsiuos

“__oy”                         enjoyment       nemtnojey

aw Sound

“aw”                            awesome         ewaosme

“au”                             auditorium       tduaoiumir

“al”                              almost              malsto

“all”                             smallest           lamsselt

ow Sound

“__ow”                        downtown       wnownotd

“ou__”                         doubtful          tbduoluf

ur Sound

“er”                              partnership     ntphrapresi

“ir”                              birthday           hdyabitr

“ur”                             urgency           nygceur

ar Sound

“ar”                              calendar          leacnrda

or Sound

“or”                             thunderstorm   rmostdrenuht

The next two spelling games help your students review a targetted vowel sound-spelling pattern, alongside other spelling patterns. Both The Quick Picks Game and Vowel Concentration are small group games that use the Spelling Sort Cards.

The Quick Picks Game

-Overview/Object of the Game

This spelling game is designed to help your students review a targetted vowel team spelling pattern, alongside other spelling patterns. The object of the game is to pick up the most number of cards that have words that use the designated vowel team spelling.


Click the link to download these Spelling Sort Cards from the Pennington Publishing website. These cards are formatted to cut into individual cards for word sort games. Simply run off the pages on tag board and laminate for each group.


Divide your spellers up into two groups, clustered around two desks or tables, and spread out some, or all, of the vowel team spelling cards that you have already introduced (the same set to each group). Have the two groups spread out their cards spelling side up and then race to pick up the cards that have words that use the designated vowel team spelling.

For example, pass out the long a and long e cards. Then, announce “Find  ‘a__e’ cards.” After picking up all of the “a__e” cards, tell students to take turns, saying each of their words and their spellings. The speller from each group with the most word cards that match the vowel team spelling that you announced is the winner.

Vowel Team Concentration

-Overview/Object of the Game

This spelling game is designed to help your students review  targetted vowel team spelling patterns. The object of the game is to pick up the most two-word matches  of the same vowel team spelling.


Click the link to download these Spelling Sort Cards from the Pennington Publishing website. These cards are formatted to cut into individual cards for word sort games. Simply run off the pages on tag board and laminate two sets for each group of students.


Pass out some, or all, of the vowel team spelling cards that you have already introduced from one set of the laminated cards face up.  Pass out some, or all, of the second set of vowel team spelling cards face down. Have the students spread them out, being careful not to turn any over.

Students take turns turning over two cards at a time to find a vowel sound-spelling match. For instance, the boat card would match the oak card. If the student finds a match, he or she picks up the cards and gets another turn. The winner is the student who collects the most cards.

A Model Grades 4-8 Spelling Scope and Sequence

Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4-8

Differentiated Spelling Instruction

Preview the Grades 4-8 Spelling Scope and Sequence tied to the author’s comprehensive grades 4-8 Language Strand programs. The instructional scope and sequence includes grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary. Teachers and district personnel are authorized to print and share this planning tool, with proper credit and/or citation. Why reinvent the wheel? Also check out my articles on Grammar Scope and Sequence, Mechanics Scope and Sequence, and Vocabulary Scope and Sequence.

FREE DOWNLOAD TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING SPELLING RESOURCES. Administer my FREE comprehensive Diagnostic Spelling Assessment with audio file and recording matrix. It has 102 words (I did say comprehensive) and covers all common spelling patterns and conventional spelling rules. It only takes 22 minutes and includes an audio file with test administration instructions. Once you see the gaps in your middle school students spelling patterns, you’re going to want to fill those gaps.

Get the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment, Mastery Matrix, and Sample Lessons FREE Resource:

Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Programs

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has compiled the assessment-based Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary   BUNDLES to teach each of the Common Core Language Strand Standards. The full-year grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 programs provide 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics worksheets and includes sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has

weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

The program also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the author’s program.

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