Vowel digraphs are letter combinations in which the two vowels together make a single sound. (Some, like ‘au’ or ‘oi,’ are also diphthongs, in which the combination contains the basic sounds of both vowels, but they glide together to make one sound.) Here are some suggestions for sounding them out in unfamiliar words.
AI or AY are almost always pronounced as long A (/eɪ/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet): bait, bay, daily, laid, maid, may, paid, pay, say (but NOT said-- it rhymes with red), wait, way.
AU or AW are usually pronounced /ɔː/: audio, auditorium, auto, autumn, awful, cause, caught, daughter, raw, saw, taught.
EA is often pronounced /iː/ like long E (as in the long vowel rule on the Short and Long English Vowels page with a link at the bottom of this page):
bean, each, heal, lead (the verb), leave, mean, reach, real, speak, team, treat.
However, EA is also commonly pronounced like a short E (/ɛ/):
bread, breakfast, dead, head, lead (grey substance used in plumbing), ready, spread, weather. There is no certain way to predict which pronunciation a word will use.
is pronounced with a long E (/iː/ ) : bee, feed, free, need, see, seed, tree.
EI is usually pronounced with a long A (/eɪ/):eight, neighbor, weigh, or with a long E (/iː/ ) after C: receive.
EU and EW are usually long U (/juː/): eulogy, Europe, few, new, stew.
IE is usually pronounced with a long E sound (/iː/ ): belief, believe, grieve, piece, relieve. (See EI.)
An old spelling rhyme goes: “I before E except after C, or when pronounced A as in neighbor and weigh.”)
OA is pronounced with a long O (/oʊ/): boast, boat, coat, goal, soap, throat.
OI and OY make the /ɔɪ/ sound: boil, boy, point, soil, toy.
OO is pronounced /uː/ as in food, room,
school, soon, too, tool, zoo
or /ʊ/ as in book, good, look,
OU may be the most difficult vowel combination to guess.
Its most common sound is /aʊ/: about, amount, around, count, doubt, ground, house, mountain, mouth, out, sound, south.
However, it can also make the sounds of:
bought, cough, fought, ought, thought (see AU) ,
long O (/oʊ/): dough, though, thorough (meaning complete),
short U (/ʌ/): country,
double, enough, rough, trouble, young,
or /ʊ/ : could, should, would.
is pronounced /aʊ/: brown, cow, down, how, now, town,
or with a long O (/oʊ/): blow,
grow, know, low, own, show.
For a clear, more detailed explanation of digraphs and other English vowel sounds, along with practice activities, see the videos in English with Jennifer.
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