Easy Steps for Teaching Vowel Teams in Elementary

Oh, Ms. Farrah had a class A-E-I-O-U! That’s right today we are all about teaching vowel teams in elementary! These tricky little letters can be overwhelming for struggling readers. Therefore, they can be overwhelming for teachers too! Today, I am going to dig into what these vowel teams are and share some of my tips for teaching vowel teams in elementary.

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So, What’s a Vowel Team?

A vowel team is two or more letters that decide to team up and make a single vowel sound. For example, when the letters /a/ and /i/ are used together, the make one sound: the long /a/ sound. Vowel teams are a type of syllable that we typically cover when we are teaching phonics or reading strategies. Now, this sounds simple right? What if I told you there’s a difference between vowel teams and diphthongs?

The Showdown: Vowel Teams vs. Diphthongs

Have you always thought vowel teams were just any kind of letter combination that makes a long vowel sound like ai, oa, ay, ee and other others? Me too! But, vowel teams can include other vowel combinations like ou, oo, au, oi and more! Why is this so? Because there are two types of vowel teams: vowel digraphs and vowel diphthongs.


Whoa, that’s crazy right? How do you keep them straight? The short answer is diphthongs are a type of vowel team. To decide if a vowel team is a diphthong or a digraph, just give it the mouth test.


A diphthong will have letter-combinations that seem to make one sound but your mouth actually moves when you make the sound. For example, when you say the word “howl,” the /ow/ in that word is diphthong because your mouth moves when you say the world. Therefore, it actually makes TWO sounds.


Now, vowel digraphs are what you and I have always just referred to as “vowel teams.” These long vowel teams are letter combinations that make one long vowel sound such as: /ai/, /ay/, /ea/, /ee/, /igh/, /ie/, /oa/, /oe/, and /ow/.

If you haven’t been using these terms correctly in the past, do not worry! I have used them incorrectly in the past; so, trust me, I have been there! I always thought diphthongs were just a vowel team letter combination that didn’t make a long vowel sound. However, it’s a bit more detailed than that!

Today, just to be clear, we are going to focus on vowel digraphs. In other words, the long sounds made by two or more letters that come together to make one sound.

When to Teach Vowel Teams in Elementary

Knowing when teaching vowel teams in elementary can be tricky. It’s important that students understand general phonics first. In kindergarten, I tend to first focus on just that, phonics. However, if your students are ready to learn vowel teams, I say go for it! By first grade, I start to work on vowel teams in the spring and in second we review in the fall.

If your students are struggling with phonics, you should check out our Phonics Made Easy printables in the store as well as our Phonics Intervention pack which was specifically designed for English Language Learners. These come with complete images (no clipart) so your students can make real world connections to the language (or phonics) they are learning. While this is for English language learners, it can be helpful for native speaking students who are simply struggling as well.


Everything you need to teach phonics and vowel teams can be found in your year long bundle for math and literacy centers for kindergarten, first, and second grade in the store! These are great low prep, ready to rock and roll centers that will ensure that you have time for small group literacy instruction.

Begin with the Sound when Teaching Vowel Teams in Elementary

I taught for more than 20 years and in that time, I have found that when you are teaching vowel teams in elementary it is best to start with phonics. Not the letters. Not the symbols. Simply the sounds! This means you start by having your students do simple auditory activities so they can HEAR the sounds. From there, they will learn how to identify each vowel digraph is based on the sound each one makes.


To start this, I like to ask my students to listen to a list of words and tell me what sound they all have in common. This is done orally, so at this point, they haven’t seen any letters or words yet!

Once they have connected the words and sounds by simple listening, then I move to the grapheme that makes up the sound. You can find amazing pieces from our long vowel sound literacy centers in the year long math and literacy bundles to show pictures that have the same long vowel sound that the vowel team has. This will help you show them the letters that make up the sound.

Make the Connection!

Once students recognize the sound, I want them to hear it just a bit more and work with the sound in a word. Now, we don’t want to just jump into reading words with the vowel team just yet! Instead, I use a word in the sentence so they can connect the sound we are working on with a word and meaning. After that, we will segment the sounds we hear in the word. I like to use my arm, counters that students slide, or anything that will help them be able to tell me the number of sounds they hear in a word.


After, we draw our sound boxes for each sound we hear. Again, we sound out the word we are working on and write a letter in each box that we know represents that sound. I always remind students we have learned that sneaky or silent e can make a vowel say its name, but there is another way to make the long vowel sound we hear in our word. At this point, I point out the vowel team that is making the sound in the word we are working on.

From this point, we complete the rest of the words I have chosen for practice using the steps above.

  • Listen to the sound in a word
  • Segment the sounds we hear in the word
  • Draw sound boxes for each sound heard
  • Point out the vowel team!

Learning Vowel Team RULES

When you’re teaching your students how to spell, knowing the rules of vowel teams can be a lifesaver for them! Some vowel teams have rules like /ai/ are only found at the beginning and middle of words. Another is /ay/ is used at the end of words. The same rules can be applied to /oa/ and /ow/ but /ee/ and /ea/ can be used in all three positions.

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These are some super simple rules but can help when students are trying to decide what letters to make the sound they hear in spelling and writing. Remember, reviewing these rules when you are teaching vowel teams can help students become all-star spellers! You can always review them in your literacy centers as well! Vowel teams, digraphs, diphthongs, or simply phonics in general can be tricky to teach students. However, breaking down each sound and practicing it with several different words as a whole class can help students become better readers. Once your students are getting the hang of these tricky vowel teams, make sure you continue to teach vowel teams by enriching these concepts in your literacy centers especially at your small group table!

Until Next Time…

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