Teaching R Controlled Vowels to English Language Learners

Many native English speaking ESL teachers are unfamiliar with R Controlled Vowels. However, these can be challenging for multilingual students. Many instructors teach R vowels as they are encountered. For example, when mother/father are words in a story or when first/third are used in a text, "er" and "ir" are taught respectively. 

Students often prefer to learn R vowels in systematic manner.  A common sentence used to introduce the R-controlled vowels as a group is -
The storm hurt her first car.

A picture of a car with a tree limb on top of it helps students remember this key sentence. Underline and review the R vowels and their pronunciations. The chart above illustrates the five basic spellings and sounds with beginning ESL words. 

Three of the R vowels ("er", "ir and "ur") make the same sound /er/. This sentence contains five spellings which say /er/.  

Her first nurse works early.

Some alternate spellings of R vowels include the following:

"Ear" says /er/ in early. "wor" says /er in word.
"Ear" says /ar/ in heart.
"Oor, our and ore" say /or/ in door, four, and store
"war" says /wor/ in war.

As seen above, when "w" precedes an R vowel, its sound changes. Because "w" is a vowel, it often affects an adjacent vowel. It may be necessary to point out this effect. 

w + ar = /wor/     w + or = /wer/

Some students will get confused by vowel team words and silent e words that contain a vowel followed by a "r". "Hear" has a vowel team followed by "r" so it says the long e sound. "Care" is a silent e word with "r" as the middle consonant. Therefor, "care" says the long a sound , not the /ar/ sound. A good technique is to contrast vowel team and silent e words with R vowel words.

her vs hear (vowel team)   car vs care  (Silent e)

Another little known English rule is when there is a double r, the preceding vowel is usually long. Examples include words such as:

carry   marry   berry   cherry

Learning about R controlled vowels gives English learners another tool for decoding and pronouncing new English words. Although some students will pick up these sounds and apply them to new words, most students require direct instruction. 

*The R Vowel Word Families anchor chart provides words for reading practice for beginning reading students.

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