How to Teach R-Controlled Vowels

In this post, I answer the question, “What are r-controlled vowels?”. I offer tips for how to teach this phonics skill and provide a FREE r-controlled vowels word list.  Finally, I leave you with activities and resources you can use to teach your students r-controlled vowels.

The Science of Reading tells us that for a student to become a successful reader, they need explicit and systematic phonics instruction and meaningful practice. To support your phonics instruction, I created a blog series that explains how to teach the different phonics skills.  In earlier posts, I explained how to teach cvc words, how to teach blends and digraphs, and how to teach long vowels

How to Teach R-Controlled Vowels

Today I am excited to help you better understand r-controlled vowels. I explain what they are and offer tips for how and when to teach this important phonics skill.  You’ll find a FREE r-controlled vowels word list and a suggested list of engaging phonics activities you can use to teach r-controlled vowels in your classroom.

What are R-Controlled Vowels? 

An R-controlled vowel is a vowel that is immediately followed by the letter ‘r’.  The vowel is no longer pronounced as a long or short vowel.  R-controlled vowels are also sometimes referred to as r-influenced vowels or Bossy R. This is because the ‘r’ changes the way the vowel sounds.

An R-controlled vowel is one immediately followed by the letter 'r' and which can no longer be pronounced as a long or short vowel.


The 5 R-Controlled Vowels in English

There are five r-controlled vowels in English. They are ar, or, er, ir and ur.  Let’s take a closer look at each one.  

 1. -ar makes /ar/ or /er/

Ar is the most common r-controlled vowel. Ar usually makes the /ar/ sound like you hear in car, star, and far.  The tricky part is that -ar can also make the /er/ sound like you hear in beggar or pillar.  To help students, decide between the two, teach them that the /er/ sound is usually found at the end of multi-syllable words. 

 2. -er, -ur, and -ir all make /er/

While all of the r-controlled vowels can make the /er/ sound, the most common is -er.  It is often (but not always!) used at the end of a comparative adjective like hotter, bigger, smaller, or as words that are occupations or roles like teacher, sister, or mother

Ur is usually found in the middle of a word like in the words hurt, purple, church

Ir is also frequently found in the middle of a word and is often followed by the letters d, m, t, or th.  Examples include bird, shirt, birth, and squirm.

3. -or makes /or/ or /er/

Or most frequently makes the /or/ sound like we hear in corn, story, or orbit. If the letter w comes before -or, the sound is usually /er/.  For example, the words worm, world, or work.  Also, when found at the end of a word, -or will also usually sound like /er/, as we hear in doctor and sailor.

When Should You Teach R-Controlled Vowels?

Before you introduce r-controlled vowels, students need to know how to identify parts of words, including the short vowel and long vowel sounds.  

R-controlled vowels are usually first introduced towards the end of first grade. Instruction continues into 2nd grade and sometimes beyond.  It is best to start with -ar as it is the most common. Then move on to -er, -ir, -or and -ur.

Resources and Activities to Teach R-controlled Vowels 

Mastery of r-controlled vowel patterns takes TIME.   We must provide a variety of opportunities for students to practice and review these patterns.  Fortunately, many engaging, low-prep, SoR-aligned activities offer this practice.   Let’s take a closer look at a few of my favorites…

 1. R-Controlled Phonics Activities

These Science of Reading-aligned, printable, and digital phonics and spelling activities give students the practice they need to master r-controlled vowels. After you have explicitly taught the skill, these activities can be used as review in a center, independent work, or sent home for extra practice. This resource includes 54 student printables and 30 interactive digital slides all focused on r-controlled vowels.

R-controlled phonics activities.

I love these phonics activities because they are NO PREP for you!  Simply print out the pages and assign them to students as needed.  Additionally, they include tasks on varying levels so you can easily differentiate based on the needs of your students.

2. Word Mapping 

Word mapping activities are a physical way to represent the relationship between the phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (letters).  They allow students to physically connect or match the letters with the sounds they represent and help promote the process of orthographic mapping. Ultimately word mapping activities build word recognition and decoding skills that improve fluency in both reading and writing.  

R-controlled word mapping activities.

Using my word mapping resource, students connect the speech sounds (phonemes) of a word to the letters or letter combinations (graphemes). This resource includes over 85 r-controlled and diphthong words and is perfect for centers, independent, and guided practice!

 3. Decodable Texts

A decodable text is a text you use in beginning reading instruction.  It is a story that is controlled based on the phonics skills you have taught. Once students have received explicit instruction with r-controlled vowels, use decodable books or passages to let them begin reading those words!  

R-controlled decodable passages.

Decodable texts give students practice applying the skills that you have taught to real reading experiences.  This application is how skills stick! These Science of Reading-aligned decodable passages with comprehension questions and explicit teacher lesson plans are the perfect resource to give students practice reading texts with the skills you have taught.

This resource contains 17 decodable passages with comprehension questions and is perfect for beginning readers. Each passage is a phonics-based controlled text that contains r-controlled vowel and diphthong words, previously taught words, and irregular high-frequency words. You’ll also get lesson plans for each book with activities to use before, during, and after reading, as well as student printables and audio recordings of each book!

4. FREE Phonics Skills Word Lists

Finally, to help get you started teaching r-controlled vowels to your students, I am happy to offer you FREE phonics skills word lists! These lists serve as excellent teacher references and can be used in many ways:  whole group instruction as you introduce and practice new phonics patterns, small group work, fluency reading, and much more.

In one download you’ll get word lists for CVC wordsBlends, Digraphs, Long vowels, R-Controlled vowels, Diphthongs, and Multisyllabic words!

Drop your email below to instantly receive these FREE Phonics Skills Word Lists!

I hope the information and resources I have shared here today will help to bring more effective phonics instructions and practice into your classroom.  Be on the lookout for my next post where I’ll dive into how to teach diphthong skills.

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