Teaching Kids How to Pronounce R-Controlled Vowels

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These are vowels that are trailed by an r that “controls” them. The five most common r-controlled vowel combinations are ar, er, ir, or, and ur.

American English pronunciation has four widely identified r-controlled-vowels:

‘schwa+r’ /ɚ/

‘ar sound’ /ɑr/

‘or sound’ /ɔr/

‘air sound’ /ɛr/

You’ve taught your learners the short vowel sounds and their representations. You’ve taught your learners the long vowel sounds and their representations. But have you taught the R Controlled Vowels?

A ‘R Controlled’ vowel is immediately followed by the letter ‘r’ and can no longer be pronounced as a long or short vowel. The ‘r’ following the vowel distorts the typical vowel sound, creating a new vowel sound (sometimes referred to as a ‘growl vowel’).

What are the R Controlled Vowel Representations?

R Controlled words make up about 10% of single-syllable words. In some phonics programs, the letter ‘r’ is called ‘Bossy R’ to help learners understand the strong impact this consonant has on the preceding vowels. I prefer to utilize the mnemonic ‘R in Charge.’

How to Teach the R Controlled Vowels

Start with ‘ar’

In systematic phonics instruction, you move from simple to complex and most common representations to less common. Because /ar/ is the most commonly used R Controlled Vowel sound and has only one representation, we utilize this to introduce what happens when ‘r’ is in charge. (N.B. The word ‘heart’ is an irregular, tricky word.)

Use a ‘Compare and Contrast’ Method

Have your learners read CVC words containing short ‘a’, for example: ‘can’, ‘cat’, ‘cab’, and ‘cap.’ Tell the learners that the consonant ‘r’ changes the vowel’s sound immediately before it and read the word ‘car’ for them. Repeat the process with other CVC words, asking the learners to read the word with ‘ar.’

The Sound Substitution Method

Have the learners read ‘cat’ then replace the ‘a’ with ‘ar’ and read ‘cart’ (There’s also a worksheet for this in our bundle!). Have them read ‘had’ then replace the ‘a’ with ‘ar’ and read ‘hard’. Repeat the process until the learners understand this concept.

Teaching Strategies

An R Controlled Syllable is one of 6 types of syllables. Have the learners read two-syllable words with ‘ar’ in the first syllable only. e.g. ‘ar-my’, ‘par-ty’, ‘car-go’. DO NOT give the learners words with ‘ar’ in the second syllable at this stage.

When counting the number of sounds in a word, ‘ar’ counts as just one sound, /ar/. You can help struggling learners to remember this by utilizing sound buttons for sound counting. For instance:

R controlled vowels – sound buttons.

Once the learners can read ‘ar’ words, you can move on to these words’ spelling. A common spelling error of beginning spellers is writing the letter ‘r’ for /ar/. This is a confusion of letter name and sound. Explicitly teach them that the letter name for ‘r’ is pronounced as /ar/ but this is not the sound it represents. The sound that the letter ‘r’ represents is similar to a puppy barking sound, /r/, as in ‘red’ and ‘run.’ Remind the learners of the mnemonic ‘R in charge’ – the letter ‘r’ must be in charge of a vowel when representing /ar/, so when writing /ar/ the vowel ‘a’ must precede the ‘r.’

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