Teaching R-Controlled Vowels from Orton Gillingham Coaching

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Teaching R-Controlled Vowels

I’ve talked about syllables in my past posts, but within syllables, and before teaching a syllable type, you might have noticed I also teach the vowel type. For example, you wouldn’t start with a closed syllable before talking about short vowels in depth.

Teaching short vowels we use drill cards, vowel strips, writing activities with sand or tracing on sand paper, we have a student listen to a sound we are saying and write that short vowel on a paper. Then we graduate to putting those vowels with our consonants and reading those phonemes together, blending the sounds. Then we introduce closed syllables, after the deep immersion of short vowels and consonants sounds.

We do the same with Magic e vowels, teaching the e at the end makes the vowel say its name. Then moving to syllables with magic e. And with long vowels, we teach the long sound deeply before we teach an open syllable. We do the same thing with R-controlled vowels. A student has to learn that an r with a vowel will make the vowel sound change. Unfortunately, there are not a ton of rules surrounding the sounds of r-controlled vowels, but there are some guidelines we can use to teach the sounds.

Methods for teaching R-Controlled Vowels

Just like teaching short vowels, we start with our phonogram cards. Have the student learn the phonograms ar, or, er, ir, ur. The “r-controlled deck” is much larger, but for now start simple with these five. Note: yr is a spelling, but it is very rare and says “ur” as in martyr, myrtle.

I always teach or and ar first.  These two are mostly phonetic in their spelling and reading. I show the phonogram card, have the student memorize the sound and key word for each. I have them trace the letters on the phonogram cards making the sounds out loud while tracing.

Things get a little trickier with er, ir and ur because they all sound the same – “ur.” There is no rule for when to use one over the other. You can tell a student er is the most common spelling.

So how do you teach those? You use the phonogram cards again. Get the student to get used to seeing the letters and saying the sounds. Get the student fast at recognizing those letters with the sound. And, they are tracing the letters and making the sounds.

Move to spelling words. Do one combination at a time starting with or. I have students trace the letters and say the sound out loud. Read words. I dictate words. I have them write or in blanks while saying the sound (just like SOS Spelling Technique). We read story passages with the sound.

Then move to the next and the next, and then combine the sounds. It’s about repetition and seeing the word over and over, especially those words with the ur, er, and ir – frequency is key to learning these. Dictation with these three comes slowly – dictate within a lesson one letter combination – meaning if you are teaching er, all dictated words will have er in them. You can use or and ar words in the lesson, but not ir or ur. You will do a lot of work with seeing the words first using games, worksheets and reading passages.

Another exercise is having students contrast words. Put words side by side – ar/or. Have a discussion about the different words and sounds. Talk about the phonetics of the sound. The ar dictionary looks like är. But, when ar follows a w, it can sound more like /or/, as in warm, warp, ward, wart. In the dictionary, or is ?r. Can you hear the long o sound?

Next Steps

The next r-controlled vowel students may see frequently is “ear” with the “ur” sound. Words like earn, early, heard, pearl. So, this would be the next phonogram card pull out of the R-Controlled phonogram deck. Follow all the same steps for auditory, visual and kinesthetic learning. (The “ear” combination also make “air” sound, as in wear, bear, tear, pear, and a long er sound as in ear.)

Once again, the R-controlled vowel will get tricky because there are many sounds the vowels take on once put beside and R, including the schwa sound, as in doctor.


Here are some guidelines for sounds that can be taught to students.

Teach these guidelines slowly (like molasses slow).

ar in a one syllable word, or in the beginning and middle, says är, as in arm

ar at the end of a word says “ur” (or a schwa sound) as in dollar (advanced)

er in all positions says “ur” (or “er”) as in fern

or in a one syllable word or in the beginning and middle, says or as in fork

or at the end of a word says “ur” (or a schwa sound) as in doctor (advanced)

ir in a one syllable word, or in the beginning and middle, says “ur” as in bird

ur in a one syllable word, or in the beginning and middle, says “ur” as in burn or turtle

Final Word

In R-controlled vowels frequency of use is key. Students need to see them, hear them, get used to them before conquering the syllable type. Once familiarity of the vowels is born, the syllables should be a breeze.

Do you have any fun activities for learning R-controlled vowels?


YouTube: https://youtu.be/IQ5Xb5dkCSc

Scope & Sequence Workbook 2: https://ogforall.com/downloads/scope-sequence-book-2/

OGforAll Workbook Store: https://ogforall.com/workbook-worksheets-store/

Drill Deck Product: Drill Cards (PDF Format) Orton Gillingham Based – Orton Gillingham for All (ogforall.com)

Sandpaper Letters, Lowercase only: https://amzn.to/3APKAnq

Sandpaper Letters, Uppercase & Lowercase: https://amzn.to/3BXZ5XN

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