What You Need to Know About R-Controlled Vowels

What Are R-Controlled Vowels and how do I teach them explicitly?  PIcture of an R-controlled fluency grid.

An r-controlled vowel refers to a specific syllable pattern. Syllables that contain the r-controlled vowel pattern have one vowel that is immediately followed by an r. The r changes the sound of the vowel so that the vowel makes neither the short sound nor the long sound.

What are the sounds of an r-controlled vowel?

For the purposes of this post we will refer to the dictionary pronunciation of the r-controlled vowels. Keep in mind there may be dialects that have a slight variation of the pronunciation such as in the Southern United States or in the Boston, Massachusetts area.

ar =  ӓr

er = әr

ir = әr

or = ȯr

ur = әr

How do I teach my students to segment and blend (tap) r-controlled words?

First, it’s important to know that the r goes with the vowel, NOT with the ending consonant (if there is one). Next, the vowel + r is tapped as one sound. Look at the following examples:

The word car is tapped like this: /k/…/ӓr/.

Her is tapped like this: /h/…/әr/

The word bird has three sounds and is tapped like so: /b/…/әr/…/d/.

For is segmented like this: /f/…/ȯr/.

Finally, the word turn is tapped out like this: /t/…/әr/…/n/.

Please note that in each case, the r is attached to the vowel sound. That’s why they are called r-controlled vowels.

What is the best sequence to teach r-controlled vowels?

Because ar has its own distinct sound, we like to start with three and four-sounds words with ar (i.e. sharp, car, hard, start).

Next, we introduce three and four-sound words containing or (i.e. for, porch).

Because ar and or have distinct sounds we then have students read and spell words with ar and or. It’s easier for students to hear the very distinct sounds of the a and o r-controlled vowels. Activities that help students focus on the two distinct sounds, help solidify their understanding.

Finally we introduce er, ir, and ur together. We teach these three r-controlled vowels at the same time because they make the same sound. Most students catch on pretty quickly when reading words like her, bird, and turn. The tricky part is spelling words containing this sound. Students will need practice, teacher support, and a lot of exposure before they are able to spell words with these three r-controlled vowels with accuracy.

What are some effective strategies for teaching the reading and spelling of r-controlled vowels?

First, Teach the phonics element explicitly.

Prior to attaching print to r-controlled vowels, phonemic awareness activities should have exposed students to the sound of these vowels. The next step is to incorporate a letter-keyword-drill activity using letter/sound cards.

Letter, keyword, sound cards help students connect the sound of the letters to the printed form

The teacher says the letters, names the picture, and says the sound. Students echo the teacher. This practice helps students recall the sound when reading words containing this phonics pattern. The keyword (picture) helps students to recall the sound associated with the picture.

Once students are familiar with this practice, you can remove the scaffold of echoing the teacher and instruct students to say each letter-keyword-sound independently when shown the card.

Eventually, students won’t require the sound card and should be able to say the letters and sound when shown letter cards without the picture.

Small r-controlled sound cards with printed letters
Second, practice tapping and reading words with R-Controlled Vowels using small sound cards.

Follow the tapping procedure we explained above. The use of sound cards helps students remember that the vowel is controlled by the r and the sounds are said as one unit.

Use small sound cards to spell out words that contain the r-controlled pattern.
Third, Apply this skill to connected text.

Decodable Word Lists and Sentences help students build automaticity. Before reading longer texts, some students may need to practice this skill at the phrase and sentence level. We have a series of decodable word lists and sentences. Be on the lookout for our R-Controlled resource which is coming soon.

Build flueny: Reading words with the R-Controlled Vowel

Fluency grids help students gain automaticity at the word level which can then carryover to connected text.

R-controlled fluency grids help students build automaticity at the word level
Fluency grids help students develop automaticity at the word level. Click on the image above to purchase these grids from our TPT store.
Use decodable texts.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again…be sure to have students read decodable texts that target this phonics element. This helps students understand that they can apply decoding strategies when reading. You don’t have to use decodable texts forever, but don’t skip this critical step.

Last, but not least, Include spelling instruction.

Reading and spelling are reciprocal skills. If students can spell the words, they will be able to read the words. Phoneme-grapheme mapping is a powerful tool to help students segment the sounds in words that have the r-controlled pattern. Be sure to have students use one box for the vowel + r as shown in the image below.

This phoneme grapheme mapping paper can help students spell r-controlled words accurately.
This resource is available in our TPT store. Just click on the image above.

What else do I need to know about r-controlled vowels?

We introduce r-controlled vowels after we have taught the -vce pattern. The reason we do this is because or and ore have the same sound of /ȯr/. More is segmented as /m/…/ȯr/. For is pronounced as /f/…/ȯr/. The final e does not affect the sound of the vowel.

In contrast, words such as share, fire, and cure, are taught as the -vce pattern. This is because when the silent e is added, the vowel sound changes to the long sound.

You might be wondering about how we teach words containing vowel teams followed by ‘r’ as in ‘air’ and ‘ear’. These patterns are technically considered phonemes. However, we have found that, once vowel teams are introduced, most students can decode these words by tapping and blending the vowel team and then the ‘r’ sound.

For example, fear can be tapped and blended like this: /f/…/ē/…/r/.

Can I teach r as an ending blend rather than as part of an r-controlled vowel?

In a word, NO! If a word ends with a consonant sound after the r, then the r always goes with the vowel. A word such as bark is segmented and blended like this: /b/…/ӓr/…/k/. NOT like this /b/…/ӓ/…/r/…/k/. Although we have seen resources that include r as an ending blend, they do not follow the Science of Reading and should be avoided.

Want to know more about explicit instruction of phonics skills?

We’ve written several posts on this topic, including the closed syllable with consonant digraphs, closed syllable with consonant blends and closed syllable with bonus letters. We also discuss how to provide explicit instruction when teaching students to read words with the suffix endings -s and -es.

Have you heard of the term welded (or glued) sounds? Want to know more about what they are and how to teach them? Then be sure to check out Glued Sound Post 1 and Glued Sound Post 2.

The closed syllable exception and the open syllable are two important phonics patterns that introduce students to the long vowel sound.

Interested in knowing the order in which you can teach these skills?

We have a FREE K-2 Scope and Sequence. Just click on the image.

picture of our K-2 Scope and Sequence
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