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Phonics Focus: Digraphs and Diphthongs

digraphs and diphthongs

Hello busy teachers, and welcome back to another post dedicated to phonics! Phonics plays a cornerstone role in the development of so many foundational skills that students learn during the early elementary years. There are so many concepts related to phonics instruction, but today we’re talking vowel digraphs vs. diphthongs. Yes, there IS a clear and distinguishable difference between the two. Let’s jump right in and clear up any confusion you may have had about them.

What Are Digraphs?

Digraphs are letter combinations that create only one sound. Last week we addressed consonant digraphs. This week, I want to talk about vowel digraphs, which are also commonly called vowel teams by many elementary teachers. The two letters work together as a team to produce just one sound – hence the name Vowel Team. Each of the five long vowel sounds are represented by a group of vowel digraphs, or vowel teams. Many vowel teams include letter patterns that aren’t necessarily digraphs, but are still included within the vowel team combo. 

Common vowel teams include these letter patterns:

When Two Vowels Go Walking

When two vowels are side-by-side and make one sound, then you have a digraph. For example, think of words such as rain, gain, pain, hay, pie, or tie. 

Now, if you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you know by now that I’m a huge advocate of bringing music and movement into the classroom any way I can. Getting students engaged in learning is right up there next to building relationships. When it comes right down to it, students need to know that you care about them as people and their general well-being. Then, once you’ve got them hooked on you as their teacher, you get them hooked on your lessons! There aren’t very many children who don’t love music! Check out this awesome vowel digraph video from the Electric Company for ai and ay. You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel. I’m working on several playlists now to make your #teacherlife easier!

What Are Diphthongs?

Next, we have diphthongs. Diphthongs are two vowels paired together in a single syllable that create two separate sounds. These are special vowel sounds. The sound will begin as one vowel sound, but will then slide into another vowel sound. Still with me? To clarify, it begins as one vowel sound and transitions into another. For instance, words such as boy, haul, and snout all have diphthongs.

This can sometimes be a tricky concept for students, so visual aids are often helpful when introducing digraphs. This could include classroom posters, task cards with images, or a reference in your students’ interactive notebooks.

 I love this diphthongs anchor chart from Ms. Shelia Bean on Pinterest. It specifically highlights different oi and oy diphthongs. Sooo cute!

Diphthongs anchor chart for oi and oy

What Order Should I Teach Digraphs and Diphthongs?

Much like math, there are building blocks when teaching phonics. Certain steps should come before others in order to provide students with a solid foundation. Typically, it is best if students are taught vowel digraphs first before diphthongs. 

After students have learned letter sounds, they learn short vowel CVC words. You should teach blends following after short vowel words. Blends are typically a good starting point for many first-grade students, but some may need to just start with the CVC words. After blends, you should teach consonant digraphs. And then teach long vowel words spelled with silent e. 

Once students have mastered this skill, you’ll need to teach vowel digraphs, followed by diphthong instruction. Strengthening your students phonics skills will certainly prepare your students to become better readers, as well as spellers and word decoders. While this is only a recommendation, you know your students best, and you should always provide instruction that matches their learning needs..

Strategies for Teaching Digraphs and Diphthongs

Of course, the best way to teach any phonological concept is by explicit instruction. There are, in fact, several ways to accomplish this in the classroom. Instruct using whole class, teacher-led activities or stick to small, individualized groups. Both vowel digraphs and diphthongs are common to introduce in first grade or second grade, but all elementary levels can practice and enhance this important skill. 

When introducing vowel teams, ensure that you use visual aids to help students learn new words and word patterns. Pocket charts with picture sorts are also a great option for this. These Match It games are perfect for this type of practice. Plus, the bundle can be used in both whole and small group activities! 

Depending on what works best for your students, you can also introduce this concept with cut and sort worksheets. The same methods work for introducing diphthongs as well. Word lists, as well as bingo games, are great options that students will love to play again and again.

Teaching Phonics Digitally

While I love interactive, hands-on learning, that isn’t an option for everyone at the moment given the amount of at-home learning taking place. With digital learning on the rise in the classroom too, I looked for something to use in my Google Classroom but I just couldn’t find something with the variety of activities I wanted, dare I say, needed, to use with my kiddos. I love introducing digraphs and diphthongs in an interactive way, so I created a set of Google Slides activities to use! Also, they can be used for virtual learning and in the traditional classroom because this resource is perfect for blended learning. 

I created both vowel digraph and diphthong activities with first and second-grade students in mind. For each phonics skill, there are 14 different word work activities to keep your students plugged into learning.

Activities include:

Students can practice long A, E, I, O, and U common vowel teams with these digital activities. If you are looking for diphthong digital activities, I have you covered as well! Students will love these engaging digital resources that cover OO, OU, OW, OI, OY, AU, and AW diphthongs! 

Teaching Phonics vowel teams and vowel digraphs
Resources for teaching phonics diphthongs

What Are Your Favorite Ways to Teach Digraphs and Diphthongs?

In summary, we’ve discussed the similarities and differences in digraphs and diphthongs, strategies for teaching each, the sequence and progression of phonics skills for beginning readers, and resources for teaching phonics in a digital or hybrid setting. I’d truly love to hear from you about your favorite ways to teach phonics! Let’s get connected and chat about what some of your go-to resources for teaching your little ones how to read! I look forward to hearing from you!

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