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What Is a Consonant Digraph and Why Is It Important?

consonant digraph decodable books and large digraph sound cards

Consonant digraphs are two consonants next to each other that work together to spell one sound. The most common digraphs that beginning readers need to recognize are wh, ch, sh, th, and ck.

Ph’ is a less common digraph, but we still take the time to expose students to this grapheme.

Why do I need to teach about consonant digraphs if my students already know their letter names and sounds?

Consonant digraphs work together to spell unique sounds. Beginning (and struggling) readers typically read these letter combinations with two distinct sounds rather than one. For example, ‘th‘ is frequently read as /t/…/h/ rather than /th/. Many closed syllable words (CVC pattern) contain consonant digraphs. Students need practice hearing these new sounds and recognizing specific digraph combinations.

What is the best way to teach consonant digraphs?

The best way to teach digraphs is to begin with phonemic awareness. When segmenting and blending words orally (without print attached), be sure to include words containing the sounds of the digraphs like chop, quick, wish, and that.

The next step is to help students match the sound to print. One way to do this is to show a flashcard with the two letters of a digraph and a picture that matches the digraph sound. Then teach the letter/sound drill. Show the card and say, “c..h, cheese, /ch/. The student(s) repeat the phrase. Go through the sequence of digraphs.

Next, provide word lists and connected decodable texts like sentences and books that contain digraphs. Providing decodable texts containing the focus phonics element gives students the necessary practice.

How can I help my students read consonant digraphs in connected text?

We find the best way to help students develop their ability to read words containing digraphs is to use controlled text. Controlled text refers to texts (words, sentences, and stories) in which the majority of the words students are expected to read contain previously taught concepts. Another term for controlled texts is decodable texts.

When applying the alphabetic principle to decodable texts, many students benefit from reading texts that focus on one particular digraph at a time. Once students can read the focus digraph in connected text, another digraph may then be introduced.

It is important to provide decodable texts containing the focus phonics element, as well as previously taught phonics features. Doing so, helps the students use the alphabetic code (the alphabetic principle) to read with accuracy.

What are some considerations when teaching digraphs?

  1. One of the first things to consider when teaching digraphs is that the ‘wh’ digraph only appears at the beginning of a word (or syllable).
  2. ‘Ck’ only comes at the end of a word or syllable. ‘Ck’ immediately follows a single short vowel. We tell our students that the ‘ck’ snuggles up to the short vowel. Then we model that using letter/sound cards.
  3. As we said earlier, ‘ph’ is a less common digraph, but it’s typically easy for children to grasp. We don’t teach ‘ph’ for spelling mastery at the single syllable level, but students need to be aware of this digraph in case they encounter it in their reading.
  4. Sometimes students have difficulty distinguishing between the consonant digraphs ‘sh’ and ‘ch’. ‘Sh’ makes one continuous sound whereas ‘ch’ is a short burst of air. If your students have trouble hearing the difference between these two digraphs, it is helpful to add a multisensory component. We encourage students to put their palms in front of their mouths when saying each sound to feel the difference.
  5. Another consideration is the ‘th’ digraph. This digraph has a voiced and unvoiced sound.

How can I help my students understand the difference between a voiced sound and an unvoiced sound?

Here’s how we explain this to our students.

We describe this as ‘motor on’ (voiced) and ‘motor off’ (unvoiced). Students put their fingers on their throats and say /th/ as in ‘feather’. They can feel the vibration in their throats. That tells them their motor is on–it’s a voiced sound.

Next, they put their fingers on their throats and say /th/ as in ‘thumb’. They do not feel the vibration in their throat. That tells them their motor is off–it’s an unvoiced sound.

How is a digraph marked?

Since consonant digraphs spell one sound, we mark this pattern by underlining the digraph with one line.

The two letters in a digraph are underlined with one line to show one sound.  The 'ch' in the word chin is underlined.  The 'ck' in the word pack is underlined.

When students are first learning about consonant digraphs, it can be helpful for them to mark the digraphs in word lists and/or connected texts like sentences or books.

A page of a decodable book with the 'sh' consonant digraph underlined in the words Tish and ship.

Use texts that students can write on. Before reading the text, prompt the students to underline the digraph with one line. This serves as a visual reminder that the digraph makes one sound.

What is the best way to help my students spell words with consonant digraphs?

An incredibly effective approach to help students spell with digraphs is a phoneme/grapheme grid. Each box on the grid represents one sound. Because digraphs make one sound the two letters share one box. Our students use the following procedure:

  1. The teacher says the word.
  2. The students repeat the word.
  3. Ask students to ‘tap’ the word and make a small dot in the bottom corner of the grid.
  4. Then students must go back and write the letter in the corresponding box.
  5. Last, have the students write the word on the line next to the boxes.

This spelling approach helps reinforce the idea that the two letters in the digraph work together to spell one sound and leads to accurate spelling. It’s like magic!

As mentioned in the previous section, we recommend that you introduce one digraph at a time. Once students can correctly spell words containing that digraph, move on to the next digraph. When using the phoneme/mapping grid, a magnetic board, or a white board, always start with a review of familiar digraphs and then move on to the current digraph.

Where can I find consonant digraph resources?

All of our resources are available in our website shop!

Letter Name and Sound cards resource
Decodable word lists and sentences resource
Decodable Readers Digraph Bundle cover
Reinforcing of Phonetically regular words resource

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