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.
Learning how vowel digraphs are spelled and pronounced in English can improve your reading comprehension, pronunciation, and spelling.
(Note: These are standard American pronunciations. British, Australian, and other Commonwealth countries-- and some regions of the U.S.-- will be different for a few of them.)
AI or AY are almost always pronounced as long A -- /eɪ/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet -- (except if followed by R-- see below the Es):
AU or AW are usually pronounced /ɔː/:
(One common exception is 'because.' At least in my California dialect, we pronounce it with a simple short 'u' sound (like umbrella, country, or cousin): be-cuz.)
EA is often pronounced /iː/ like long E (as in the long vowel rule on the English Vowels page):
However, EA is also commonly pronounced like a short E (/ɛ/):
There is no certain way to
predict which pronunciation a word will use.
EE is pronounced with a long E (/iː/ ) :
EI is usually pronounced with a long A (/eɪ/):
EU and EW are usually long U (/juː/):
As pointed out on the English Vowels page with link above, vowels and vowel digraphs followed by 'R' change their sounds. AIR, EAR, EER, and EIR can be pronounced three ways:
IE is usually pronounced with a long E sound (/iː/ ):
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/):
OI and OY make the /ɔɪ/ sound:
OO is pronounced /uː/ as in:
or /ʊ/ as in
OU may be the most difficult digraph to guess.
Its most common sound is /aʊ/:
However, it can also make the sound of /ɔː/ :
long O (/oʊ/):
short U (/ʌ/):
or (followed by an R) /ɔr/:
is pronounced /aʊ/:
or with a long O (/oʊ/):
UE is pronounced /uː/:
UI/UY can be pronounced /uː/:
or sometimes /ɪ/:
A good way to learn how these digraphs sound in spoken in English is to listen to a speech or podcast that has a transcript you can read while you listen. Check out English Listening Practice.
Try Carol Dweck's short TED talk on that page: "The Power of Yet (Believing that you can improve)." She talks about the importance of a growth mindset: confidence that practicing difficult skills can make you smarter, rather than just prove you are a failure. I found 22 vowel digraphs in the first two minutes, or neatly 60 in all, almost all mentioned in the pronunciation list above.
For a more detailed explanation of digraphs and other English vowel sounds, along with practice activities, see the EnglishHints Academy course on Vowel Sounds and Spellings.