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The Digraphs “ar” and “or”

Okay, so this is too long to be called a "tidbit." It's actually a rationale for treating the letter combinations "ar" and "or" as digraphs for the sounds /ar/ and /or/ respectively, and is probably only of interest to people involved in the particulars of curriculum design. If that's not you, you're likely to get more out of the next Tidbit, What Are Vowel Sounds?.

The Problem

Curriculum designers have a choice to make when confronted with the spellings "ar" as in part, and "or" as in cord. Linguists correctly assert that the letters "ar" in part represent two distinct sounds that are blended together to get what the OnTrack Reading Phonics Program calls the single sound /ar/. Similarly, the /or/ sound taught in the program is also actually composed of two blended sounds, but is taught as a single sound.

The problem arises when you consider both what those two sounds are in each case, and also what they are not. In the case of part, if the /ar/ sound is segmented into two sounds, those sounds become /o/ (as in hot) and /r/ (as in run.) In the case of cord, if the /or/ sound is segmented, the two sounds become /oe/ (as in toe) and /r/ (as in run.)

So, the curriculum question becomes “is a child better off identifying two sounds in /ar/ and /or/ or just being trained to identify one sound?” The case for treating the spellings "ar" and "or" as digraphs for a single sound is quite persuasive when you consider the various ramifications of doing otherwise.

Reading the Digraph “ar”

Taking first the case of the digraph "ar" and it’s associated sound /ar/, let’s consider the matter from both the reading and spelling perspectives. When reading an unfamiliar word, is a child better off being trained to identify "ar" as a digraph (just as he is trained to identify other digraphs like "sh," "oe," and "ph") or not? If he is not so trained, then he will see the letter "a" and try to assign a sound to it, and this is where the first problem arises.

When followed by the letter "r", the letter "a" never represents the First Vowel Sound, or short sound. In one-syllable words, it almost always represents the Third Vowel Sound, that is the /o/ sound in want. So, the choice becomes one of simply telling a young child that "ar" is a digraph that should be pronounced /ar/, or waiting to introduce one-syllable words with an "ar" spelling until the curriculum reaches the point where the Third Vowel Sound of the letter "a" has been covered. The first approach is far simpler and, more important, it works.

Moreover, when "ar" is treated as a digraph for the sound /ar/, all that is needed when the word war is introduced is to explain that the digraph "ar" can represent a second sound, /or/, in some words. The alternative, if you consider it, is to try to explain that the letter "a" represents the /oe/ sound (as in toe) if a child has been taught to segment both /ar/ and /or/ into two sounds each.

In addition, later the child will encounter words like dollar and wizard where the spelling "ar" has to be a digraph because /er/ is definitely best taught as a single sound (even though linguistically, there are actually two.) And finally words like arid and parent will enter the curriculum at which point a child can be told that the digraph ar represents /err/ (as in merry.) Local dialects do need to be considered here, however.

Summing up, it’s quite easy to tell a child that the digraph "ar" represents the sounds /ar/ (park), /or/ (warm), /er/ (hazard) and /err/ (scarce) as long as the options are introduced systematically, whereas going the other route results in total confusion for the following reasons:

1. It never pays to try the /a/ sound when encountering "ar" in a word, but that is exactly the behavior that would be trained by the early curriculum in most cases.

2. It would require telling a child that the letter "a" represents /oe/ in words like war and warm.

3. It would require introducing the /o/ sound for the letter "a" too quickly or else ignoring most one-syllable words with "ar" spellings for much of the early curriculum.

4. It would require treating "ar" as two sounds in most words (and confusing sounds at that) but then treating "ar" as a digraph when it represents /er/ in dollar and similar words.

Spelling the /ar/ Sound

The sound /ar/ is almost always spelled with the letters "ar." Exceptions tend to be words like charred and sparring where the ending consonant is doubled in front of a suffix.

But what happens if a young child has been taught to hear (identify) two sounds when he hears /ar/ in a word, and those two sounds are /o/ and /r/, respectively. It doesn’t take much exposure to struggling readers (and spellers) to realize what will come out the end of the pencil when such a child tries to spell the word part with four sounds. He will be saying /p/…/o/…/r/…/t/ (because those are the sounds he’s been trained to hear, and when he gets to the /o/ sound, it’s almost a certainty that the letter "o" will appear on the paper, just as it does when he’s spelling other words with /o/ sounds such as hot and shot.

In fact, the only way to keep him from doing so, will be to train him that if the /r/ sound is coming along next, he should use the letter "a" instead. In other words, he should start thinking about both sounds working together. Well, if that’s the case, why train him to separate them in the first place, particularly when it causes all the complications discussed above?

Reading the Digraph “or”

A child being trained to hear (identify) two sounds in the word or (/oe/+/r/) will, as a consequence, also be trained to view each sound’s spelling separately, rather than looking for a digraph, "or." When he reads a word like for, he will see the letter "f," say /f/, then the letter "o," say /o/ (as in hot) and finally the letter "r" and say /r/. When he blends the result, he will certainly get the word far. Virtually the only way to prevent this result is to get the child to simultaneously see the letter "r" and then to understand either an explicit or implicit rule that “when the letter "o" is followed by the letter "r," you say /oe/, not /o/.”

It’s far simpler to just teach a child to identify "or" as a digraph and say the /or/ sound. Furthermore, when "or" is not the /or/ sound, it represents just one sound anyway, the /er/ sound in words like work, worth and sailor, so in those cases he will be identifying it as a digraph anyway.

Spelling the /or/ sound

Complications arise here no matter what choices are made, mainly because, unlike the case of the /ar/ sound where the spelling is nearly always consistent, we spell the /or/ sound many different ways (for, ore, oar, floor and pour, to cite most of them.)

The OnTrack Reading Phonics Program approaches this by treating "or" as a digraph for either /or/ or /er/ when reading, and then by having the child focus on the spelling of the /oe/ sound in all other spellings of /or/. It does this by making the first exposure to words like oar, ore and pour occur during the lesson when the spellings of the /oe/ sound are taught.

The important point to make here is that nearly every child, once shown that the digraph "oa" represents the /oe/ sound, can then read words like oar and board by blending the /oe/ and /r/ sounds together. In other words, they can read the words if they know the /oe/ spellings.

As for spelling all these variations of the /oe/ sound, they are exposed to the spellings in a way the emphasizes the differences, and they become aware that when spelling the /or/ sound, they have several choices to consider, or put another way, they need to consciously notice the different spellings as they learn new words with /or/ sounds in them if they are to spell them correctly. Generally, this was not a problem when considering the /ar/ sound, as it is usually spelled simply "ar."


Why is this relevant? Well, assuming you see the logic presented above and agree with it, one way to determine whether you should go with a particular phonics curriculum is to check quickly and see how words like part and cord are taught. If the curriculum instructs you to teach "ar" and "or" as digraphs, it is likely to be a more "kid-centered" curriculum than one that segments the spellings "ar" and "or" into two sounds each. While the second curriculum might be linguistically correct, the first is more likely to have been field tested and shown to work.

Of interest, the two curricula on which the OnTrack Reading Phonics Program is based differ on this point. Romald Spalding, in The Writing Road to Reading, treats "ar" and "or" as digraphs, whereas Reading Reflex segments /ar/ and /or/ into two sounds each. Ms. Spalding made the better choice.

If the above logic for treating the digraphs "ar" and "or" seems reasonable to you, consider investigating the OnTrack Reading Advanced Code Phonics Workbook. The workbook is a complete advanced code phonics program that incorporates each of these "Tidbits" and covers precisely the information your child will need to become proficient in phonics, including the most effective multisyllable decoding method you will find anywhere.

The next few Tidbits deal with explaining some basic phonics concepts to your child.