How to Teach Vowel Teams Effectively

For those new to teaching (and even some veteran teachers), knowing how to teach vowel teams can be challenging.  There’s so much confusion over the difference between vowel teams, diphthongs, digraphs, and blends. 

Then there’s the question of when you should introduce vowel teams to young learners. So we’re going to unpack all of this information in order to help you understand…

  • why vowel teams are important,
  • how to teach them, and
  • which activities are going to really amp up the learning and engagement with your learners.

What are vowel teams?

Vowel teams are a “team” of two vowels that work together to make one vowel sound.  This sounds easy enough.  You just see two vowels together and they make a team!

But the challenge arises when you consider the fact that each vowel team can have multiple pronunciations.  In other words, the order of the vowels isn’t always indicative of how words should be pronounced. 

This can be REALLY confusing for our students…especially when you realize just how many exceptions are found in the English language.

Let me explain.

Typically, when we encounter the /ea/ vowel team, the word makes a long /e/ sound like in the words “sea, dream, steam.”  Unfortunately, there are actually two more sounds that this particular vowel team can produce including the short /e/ sound in words like “head, dread, meadow” or the long /a/ sound as in “steak, break.”

Quite simply, knowing these sounds and understanding that what we see isn’t always how it is pronounced is important. 

what is the difference between vowel sounds & vowel teams?

Vowel sounds focus on the standard vowels in the English language A, E, I, O, U while vowel teams consist of multiple vowel combinations that create one vowel sound.  Some of the most common vowel teams are /ai/, /ay/, /ee/, /ea/, /ey/, /ie/, /oa/, /oe/, /ue/, /ui/.

Are vowel teams digraphs?

Vowel teams and digraphs are different. Digraphs consist of two letters such as the /sh/ in “she” or “wish”.  Vowel teams consist of two vowels with the most common vowel teams being /ai/ and /ay/.

In a digraph, two letters combine to create one sound which is called a phoneme.  There are consonant digraphs and vowel digraphs.

  • Examples of consonant digraphs are /ch/, /sh/, /th/, and /ng/
  • Examples of vowel digraphs are /ea/, /oa/, /oe/, /ie/, /ue/, /ar/, /er/, /ir/, or, /ur/

The obvious difference here is that digraphs include at least one consonant while vowel teams include ONLY vowels.

What about blends?

A blend contains two consonants such as /sl/, /st/, /fl/, /sk/, /gr/, /sw/. Some examples of blends would be “slip” and “flag”.  Notice that /sl/ and /fl/ each make their own sound in the word, but that the sounds actually “blend” together.

What are diphthongs?

Diphthongs are vowels that make a sliding sound.  Diphthongs are also referred to sometimes as gliding vowels since the tongue moves to different positions when saying each vowel.

Some words that include diphthongs are “time” and “like”.  Note the way the tongue moves in the mouth to make the different vowel sounds. Other examples of diphthongs include “coin”, “loud”, “side”, and “ouch”.

The word “diphthong” itself sounds musical and can help you to remember its meaning.

Should struggling learners be able to explain the difference between vowel digraphs & diphthongs?

In a word, no!  (I see you doing a happy dance! Me too!) Telling students too much about diphthongs or digraphs can easily confuse them.  That’s why it’s most important for students to focus on vowel teams.

Introducing and including lessons on basic homophones, or words that sound the same but are spelled differently, can also be very helpful for students at this point because homophones are very often the cause of spelling mistakes.

Homophones are also commonly found on state reading tests, so just understanding this one component in spelling could easily help struggling spellers to make progress.

Why is it important to study vowel teams?

Students who struggle with vowel teams will naturally struggle with spelling as well.  Vowel teams are the source of some of the most common reading and spelling errors because one vowel sound can be represented by as many as six different vowel teams.

Some vowel teams have predictable spelling patterns while other don’t.  By focusing on the predictable vowel teams spelling patterns, we can help our students with some of their most common spelling errors.  This understanding and resulting mastery will then be reflected on state reading tests.

When should vowel teams be introduced?

Vowel teams are typically introduced in first grade, but they need to be reviewed in all of the early elementary grades.  This is even more essential if you teach remedial classes. Review is going to be the key to true mastery from first grade on up.

So where do we begin when teaching vowel teams?

The “Less is more” approach

As with most new concepts, less is more.  Introducing multiple vowel teams at once will easily confuse your learners and cause them a lot of frustration.

The best plan is to take it slow and focus on one or two teams for a week at a time. You could even plan your spelling lesson for the week around vowel teams. The /ai/ and /ay/ vowel teams are excellent to start with because they’re quite common and have a predictable pattern of spelling.

Pre-test

If you teach older grades but you know this is a skill you need to review or possibly even reteach, give a vowel team assessment and see which ones are causing the most confusion for the class.  Then tailor your teaching to the needs of the learners in your class.

If you notice there are just a few that need more intensive remediation, consider working with a small group to solidify their understanding.

Avoid confusing “tricks”

Whether you plan to teach vowel teams starting from the beginning with the most common ones or the ones with which your students seem to be struggling, avoid using teaching clichés or phrases such as, “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.”

While this is a true statement in some cases, it isn’t true all the time.  Therefore, the “trick” can cause learners more frustration simply based on the fact that there are so many exceptions to the rule!

How to Teach Vowel Teams Effectively incorporating Different Learning Styles

Poems and Tongue Twisters

A great way to introduce vowel teams is through the use of poems and tongue twisters.  Students can learn to recognize vowel teams by highlighting the repeating letter sounds in the poem or tongue twister.

This activity can be done initially as a whole class with the teacher reading the tongue twister or poem and the students marking the repeating vowel teams with a highlighter. The students can either read aloud with the teacher or just follow along reading silently.

Another variation of this activity is to have the class work independently by reading a poem or tongue twister silently while marking the vowel teams with a highlighter as they work.

Following the gradual release model, teachers can see where students are on the spectrum of understanding for this particular skill.

Anchor Charts

Anchor charts are a visual way to help students compare the sounds and spellings of different vowel teams. Seeing the charts displayed in class can help students to memorize the vowel teams and their spellings.

Each vowel team can also be displayed using a different color to further help the student to differentiate the different vowel teams.  You could also make an anchor chart for each vowel team.

Cut and Paste

Cutting and pasting activities never get old for students.  They enjoy the interactive component and having students find words with vowel teams in magazines and then cutting and pasting the words on a piece of paper is bound to be a crowd pleaser.

After completing the assignment, students can then share their words with the class and tell the class which vowel teams they found.  If you have posted a vowel teams anchor chart in the classroom, this becomes an activity with a self-correcting component.

Students can determine whether or not the word they have found meets the requirements of being a vowel team by using the anchor chart as a guide.

Vowel Tables

Vowel tables can help students who aren’t sure about the spelling of certain words, especially older students who are in need of remediation.  Vowel tables are essentially mini anchor charts that the student can keep with them.

The student can look at the different vowel team spelling choices on the vowel table, spell the word using a chosen vowel team, and then decide which spelling looks right to them. Each student will have their own table to provide extra help whenever needed during writing time.

These vowel tables will also help reduce the number of “how do you spell this?” questions you receive on a daily basis because they will have them right on the table. 

Sneaky Spellers

Students could then create their own “sneaky” spellers.  These books (or spellers) are designed to be a resource for students to use as needed to assist them in their learning process and certainly when writing.

This would be helpful information to provide to parents as well so that they could know specifically which vowel team spellings to practice at home.

Beachball Bounce

Kinesthetic learners will love this idea!  Write vowel teams on a large beach ball. Have the students throw and catch the ball in teams. When a student catches the ball, they have to say the correct sound of the vowel team that their hand lands on.

This could help to ensure that students are not only memorizing the spelling of the vowel teams, but they are also understanding the sound made by those vowel teams.

Vowel Sound Task Cards

Looking for a simple and easy way to teach or review vowel teams? Check out my Vowel Team Safari-Themed Task Cards! They can be used as…

  • test prep or skills review
  • seat work for students to individually practice
  • stations or in small groups or pairs
  • bell ringers
  • SCOOTs or Around the Room activities

Do you have a few extra minutes before or after an assembly or lunch and need to get in some extra learning, but you don’t have time to search for materials and put together a lesson?

These cards work great for those small bits of time when you want to get in some extra learning, but you don’t have time for a complete lesson. I like to keep several sets laminated and hole punched on small rings so that I can quickly pass them out to students or set them up in a station.

There are so many ways to make learning fun, and the good new is you now know how to teach vowel teams! So be sure to implement some of these activities into your lessons in order to meet all of the learning styles present in your classroom.