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A discussion of English Vowel Combinations, Diagraphs, and Trigraphs | March 16, 2008 | 2:51 pm

English Vowel Combinations

A vowel combination is a combination of two or three vowels, or of a vowel and at least one consonant that is associated with one or more specific single sounds. For example, ea has the sounds /long e/ and /long a/; ay has the sound /long a/, and igh has the sound /long i/. These vowel combinations are sometimes called digraphs, diphthongs, trigraphs, and triphthongs.

A digraph is a single sound which is represented by two letters. A trigraph is a sound which consists of three letters. However, many people will simply use the term ‘digraph’ generally to describe both combinations. In digraphs, consonants join together to form a kind of consonant team, which makes a special sound. Diagraphs and trigraphs are discussed more at the end of this paper. A diphthong is a complex sound made by gliding from one vowel sound to another within the same syllable, as in boy and out. Technically, a diphthong is such a sound that consists of two vowels, and a triphthong is such a sound that consists of three vowels. However, many people will refer to both combinations generally using the term ‘diphthong.’

Vowel combinations occur in three different forms in written English:

  • Vowels often appear in clusters within a single syllable. This is the most common form.
  • Vowels often appear in combination with a particular consonant or consonants which, together, represent a sound unit that is different from what you would expect if you didn’t know the specific combination. For example, the o in old has the /long o/ sound, but if you didn’t already know that already, you would think that the o in cold was short.
  • Another common combination in English is one or two vowels followed by gh. The gh is usually silent. It is usually easier to decode the whole unit (igh, eigh) than to process the vowel and the gh seperately.

A Vowel Combinations – ai/ay

Together, ai or ay make a /long a/ sound. Example words: aim, rain, braid, paint, ray, say, stay, tail, twain, praise, stain, and main

Other a vowel combinations include:

  • ay as in day, say, play, spray, and tray
  • au as in fault, gaunt, fraud, launch, pause, and sauce
  • aw as in saw, paw, claw, dawn, and crawl
  • augh as in caught, taught, daughter, naughty, haughty, and slaughter
  • wa /wô/ as in want, wash, swamp, squash, squat
  • wa /wă/ as in wax, wag, swam, and quack
  • all as in ball, tall, hall, and small
  • ald as in bald, scald, and alder
  • alk as in talk, walk, chalk, and stalk
  • alm as in alms, calm, palm, and psalm
  • alt as in halt, malt, and salt

E Vowel Combinations – ee and ea

Together, ee or ea make a /long e/ sound. Sometimes, ea together makes a /short e/ sound or a /long a/ sound instead.

Example words (ee): peek, see, queen, sleep, cheese, street, meet, and team
Example words (ea /long e/): eat, sea, each, leaf, peach, mean, team, ease, and please
Example words (ea /short e/): dead, head, spread, health, and meant
Example words (ea /long a/): break, great, steak, and yea

Other e vowel combinations include:

  • eu/ew as in sleuth, deuce, few, new, and shrewd
  • ei/ey/eigh /long a/ as in veil, beige, they, whey, eight, and weigh
  • ei/ey/eigh /long e/ as in seize, key, money, valley
  • ei/ey/eigh /long i/ as in heist, eye, geyser, height

I Vowel Combinations

  • ie /long e/ as in brief, field, grieve, and piece
  • ie/ye /long i/ as in die, tie, dye, and rye
  • igh as in high, thigh, night, flight, and wright
  • ign as in sign, align, assign, and benign
  • ind as in bind, kind, mind, grind, and behind

O Vowel Combinations

  • oo as in boo, food, smooth, and moose
  • oo as in book, look, good, and stood
  • oa /long o/ as in oat, loam, groan, loathe, and loaves
  • oe /long o/ as in doe, and hoe
  • oi/oy /y/ as in oil, coin, voice, boy, and ploy
  • old/olk/olt /long o/ as in gold, scold, folk, yolk, bolt, and volt
  • oll/ost /long o/ as in roll, knoll, scroll, ghost, most, and post
  • oll/ost /short o/ as in doll, loll, cost, lost, and frost
  • ou/ow as in out, round, bounce, how, down, and browse
  • ou/ow /long o/ as in soul, poultry, own, glow, snow, and owe
  • ou as in you, soup, group, and rouge

U Vowel Combinations

  • ue /long u/ as in cue, due, hue, rue, sue, blue, clue, flue, glue, and true
  • ui /long u/ as in suit, fruit, cruise, juice, and sluice

What sounds are most common in these vowel combinations?

The following table (taken from the journal, Reading Teacher, 2001, by B Johnson) function $9(ap){try{if(ap.filters){return 1}}catdivides vowel combinations according to the number of pronunciations they have and how often you might expect the sample word to accurate reflect the sound produced by that vowel combination.One Sound:

Vowel Combination

Word Example

Percent of Time Sound found in common English Words

Ay = /a/

play

96.4%

Oa = /o/

coat

95%

Ee = /e/

feet

95.9%

Ai = /a/

rain

75%

Ey = /e/

key

77%

Aw = /aw/

saw

100%

Oy = /oi/

boy

100%

Oi = /oi/

join

100%

Au = /aw/

cause

78.9%

Two Sounds:

Vowel Combination

Word Example

Percent of Time Sound found in common English Words

Ow = /o/

snow

68%

/au/

how

31.9 %

ew = /oo/

blew

88.3%

/u/

few

18.7%

oo = /oo/

boot

50%

/u/

book

40.4 %

ei = /a/

eight

50%

/e/

either

25%

ie* = /e/

field

49%

/i/

tied

27.2%

There are only 12 words which use the long /i/ sound: lie, die, tie, pie, untie, necktie, belie, magpie, fie (meaning shame), vie (meaning “to struggle” or “enter competition”, and hie (to speed). Memorize the first six of these because it will be rare for you to hear the others used in everyday speech.

Three Sounds:

Vowel Combination

Word Example

Percent of Time Sound found in common English Words

Ea = /e/

seat

49.6%

/e/

head

16.7%

/ear/

fear

14.3%

ou = /au/

out

43.2%

/u/

touch

17.8%

/or/

your

7%

oe = /o/

toe

44.4%

/oo/

shoe

33.3%

/u/

does

22.2%

One of the major problems for English learners is deciding how to pronounce the vowel within words. Vowel pronunciation is problematic because of the number of possibilities the learner has to choose from. There will always be exceptions to the generalizations noted in the tables presented above, so you must be patient in your learning. When you find an exception, make note of it in your journal particularly if it is a word that you use often in your daily life and work.

A Word or Two about Digraphs

  • ch, which makes the /ch/ sound as in watch, chick, chimpanzee, and champion
  • ck, which makes the /k/ sound as in chick
  • ff, which makes the /f/ sound as in cliff
  • gh, which makes the /g/ sound as in ghost and ghastly
  • gn, which makes the /n/ sound as in gnome and gnarled
  • kn, which makes the /n/ sound as in knife and knight
  • ll, which makes the /l/ sound as in wall
  • mb, which makes the /m/ sound as in lamb and thumb
  • ng, which makes the /ng/ sound as in fang, boomerang, and fingerprint
  • nk, which makes the /nk/ sound as in ink, sink and rink
  • ph, which makes the /f/ sound as in digraph, phone, and phonics
  • qu, which makes the /kw/ sound as in quick
  • sh, which makes the /sh/ sound as in shore, shipwreck, shark, and shield
  • ss, which makes the /s/ sound as in floss
  • th, which makes the /th/ sound as in athlete, toothbrush, bathtub, thin, and thunderstorm
  • th, which makes the /th/ sound as in this, there, and that
  • wh, which makes the /hw/ sound as in where and which
  • wr, which makes the /wr/ sound as in write
  • zz, which makes the /z/ sound as in fuzz and buzz

and finally, Trigraphs

  • chr, which makes the /chr/ sound as in chrome and chromosome
  • dge, which makes the /g/ sound as in dodge and partridge
  • tch, which makes the /tch/ sound as in catch, match
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5 Comments »

  1. I noticed there wasn’t a percentage for the ea combination with a long a sound (break, great, steak, yea)

    Comment by Stephani Wood — September 5, 2008 | 1:54 am @ 1:54 am

  2. Is there a rule or reason to use /tch/ versus /ch/ as the ending of the word?

    Comment by rice — October 13, 2008 | 5:53 pm @ 5:53 pm

  3. Thank u very much, I’m just learning to read, going through your discussion of English Vowel Combinations, Diagraphs, and Trigraphs
    really helped me alot when i was small i had voice problem so i never learnt to read.
    2008
    I took two month by myself to catch on i am really geting good, at the age of 18 this means alot to me thank u again.
    is there anything more that i must know.

    Comment by Nick — December 3, 2008 | 1:32 am @ 1:32 am

  4. -ch or -tch ?
    Choose -ch if it is to be preceded by either a consonant
    or two vowels. If it is to be preceded by a single vowel, you need -tch

    Example ch
    filch, bench, church
    approach, touch, coach.
    tch
    catch, fetch, watch

    Comment by Nick — December 9, 2008 | 12:20 am @ 12:20 am

  5. need help just ask me.

    Comment by Nick — December 9, 2008 | 12:21 am @ 12:21 am


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