The University of Iowa

Effective Literacy Lesson: Teaching Consonant Digraphs

Two teachers standing in front of the class

After students have learned all consonant and short vowel sounds, they are ready to learn consonant digraphs, where two consonants make a special sound when combined.

By:  

Posted on: January 14, 2020

Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of an ongoing series entitled “Effective Literacy Lessons.” In these posts, we provide a brief summary of the research basis for an approach to teaching reading or writing skills. Then, we outline the instructional sequence for the approach and script how a teacher might “think aloud” to model what students should do or guide students in completing portions of the lesson. The intent of these posts is to provide teachers a starting point for designing their own effective literacy lessons.

Research Basis

Regardless of an individual’s age, skilled reading is actually the product of two abilities: decoding and language comprehension (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Murphy & Farquharson, 2016; Sabatini et al., 2010). These abilities exist in different regions of the brain but must work together in an integrative fashion to support reading comprehension (Aboud, Bailey, Petrill, & Cutting, 2016). If either ability is weak, a student will have difficulty understanding, appreciating, or learning from text.

Decoding instruction focuses on the principles of phonics and proceeds from the easiest skills, such as attributing sounds to individual letters, to the more advanced skills of special sounds made by letter combinations and the position of syllables within words. In a previous blog post, we identified a common sequence in which students learn how to connect speech sounds (called phonemes) to letters or letter combinations (collectively referred to as graphemes). Digraphs are one of the letter combinations taught after students master single letter sounds. Consonant digraphs are two or more consonants that, together, represent one sound. For example, the consonants “p” and “h” form the grapheme ph that can represent the /f/ sound in words such as “nephew” and “phone.”

This post presents an effective literacy lesson for teaching students to read words with consonant digraphs.

Lesson Materials

For Teachers:

  • Scripted purpose, introduction, and modeling
  • Plan for guided and independent practice
  • Consonant Digraph Cards for the words “chip” and “ship”

For Students:

  • Spell the Word
  • Pencil

Instructional Sequence

Lesson Appropriate for Kindergarten or Grade 1

This lesson is designed for students who already have learned all consonant sounds and short vowel sounds. In addition, it is intended for students who have been taught how to blend the sounds of individual letters together to read single-syllable words. Many students in kindergarten are ready to learn consonant digraphs, and all typically developing children should be able to read and spell words with consonant digraphs in first grade. However, students of any age who experience reading difficulties may need explicit instruction in digraphs to continue making progress in their ability to decode words.

1. Establish the Purpose

Teacher script: We have been learning how to read words by saying the sound of each letter and then blending those sounds together to say the word. Let’s read a word together to review.

Display the word “cat.” Ask students to say each letter-sound with you, one at a time and pausing slightly in between each: /c/  /ă/  /t/. Then, slowly blend the sounds together to say the word: “c-a-t.” Finally, quickly blend the sounds to say the word: “cat.”

You have been doing so well using the letter-sounds to read and spell words! Today, we are going to learn the special sounds that some letters make when they work together. Instead of making the sound of one letter at time, we going to learn when we need to use two letters to make a sound. This will help you be able to read more words that you see in your books.

2. Introduce the Concept

Teacher script: When two consonants work together to make one sound, we call them a digraph. Say that with me: digraph. Let’s say it one more time: digraph. Let’s look at two digraphs.

Display the ch and sh Consonant Digraph Cards (see Supplemental Materials for Teachers).

Consonant digraph cards ch and sh

Refer to each consonant digraph on the cards as you introduce them to the students.

This digraph is made of the letters “c” and “h” but, when we see them together in a word, we won’t sound them out as /k/ /h/. Instead, we will say them as a special sound /ch/. Say that with me: /ch/. Say that one more time: /ch/. (hold up the ch digraph card) We can remember this digraph with the picture. Who knows what is in this picture?

Students: Chips.

Teacher script: You can see the potato chips in the bag! There are some chips in the picture. The word below the picture is “chip.” Do you hear the sound at the beginning of the word “chip”: /ch/?

This digraph is made of the letters “s” and “h” but, when we see them together in a word, we won’t sound them out as /s/ /h/. Instead, we will say them as a special sound /sh/. Say that with me: /sh/. Say that one more time: /sh/. (hold up the sh digraph card) We can remember this digraph with the picture. Who knows what is in this picture?

Students: Ship.

If a student says “boat,” acknowledge that it is a picture of a boat. Ask if the student knows another word for “boat” that would have the /sh/ sound in it.

Teacher script: Good job thinking of a word with one of our digraphs! This is a picture of a ship. The word below the picture is “ship.” Do you hear the sound at the beginning of the word “ship”: /sh/?

Notice that this digraph is very short: /ch/. We have to stop the sound right away. But we can say the sound of this digraph for a long time: /sh/. (draw out the continuous sound of the digraph) shhhhhhhhhh.

3. Check for Understanding

Teacher script: What is a digraph?

Students: Two consonants that work together to make one sound.

Then, ask students to say the sound for the digraph you show them. Take the two cards and shuffle them in your hands. Randomly show students a card. Provide positive or corrective feedback for their response of /sh/ or /ch/ as appropriate. Continue to shuffle the cards, randomly show a card, and provide feedback. For example, if students provide the incorrect digraph sound, ask them to look for the digraph on the card in the words below the pictures you showed them earlier. Ask them to say the word and identify the sound of the digraph. Ask them if the sound of the digraph stops right away (i.e., /ch/) or can be continued (i.e., /sh/). If students provide the correct digraph sound, ask them how they remembered the sound for that digraph. Encouraging students to articulate their thinking that led to the correct response has two purposes. First, it will ensure students are not making lucky guesses. Second, hearing peers explain the ways they are remembering the sounds represented by the letters in the digraph will assist any students in the group who may still be struggling to understand or distinguish the digraphs.

Continue shuffling and presenting the cards until students are quickly and accurately responding to the card you display.

4. Introduce the Word Completion Activity

Project the Spell the Word handout (see Supplemental Material for Teachers) on the projection screen.

Teacher script: We are going to practice spelling words with digraphs in them. We will be using this paper that has pictures on it. Underneath each picture is part of the word that names what is shown in the picture. There are some letters missing! That is why you see a blank line. The part of the word that is missing is the digraph. You will need to decide if the word should be spelled with the ch digraph or the sh digraph. Then, you will write the digraph on the line to finish spelling the word. Sometimes the digraph will be at the beginning of the word, as in our words “chip” and “ship.” The blank line will be before the other letters of the word if the digraph is at the beginning. Sometimes the digraph will be at the end of the word. The blank line will be after the other letters of the word if the digraph is at the end.

5. Model Spelling Words with Digraphs

Teacher script: I am going to show you how to use the picture to decide which digraph you need to complete the spelling of the word. 

Refer to the first picture and partially spelled word at the end of the top row as you think aloud.

Teacher script: This is a picture of a man’s face. There is an arrow pointing to his chin. The word I need to spell is “chin.” I’m going to think about the word “chin” and what sounds I recognize in the word: /ch/ /ĭ/ /n/. I can hear the ch digraph, or /ch/ at the beginning of the word “chin.” The ch digraph has the sound that stops right after you say it: /ch/. Now I’m going to look at the word underneath the picture. I see a blank line and then the letters “I" and “n.” I know the letters “I" and “n” make the sounds /ĭ/ /n/. I also know that the blank line before those letters means that the digraph I need is at the beginning of the word. In the word “chin,” the /ch/ sound is at the beginning. I am going to write the letters “c” and “h” on the blank line.

Write the digraph on the handout to complete the spelling.

Now I’m going to blend all the sounds together to read the word and make sure I have the word that names what is in the picture.

Point to the graphemes as you pronounce each: /ch/ /ĭ/ /n/. Then, slowly blend the sounds to say the word: ch-i-n. Finally, quickly blend the sounds to say the word: “chin.”

Teacher script: That matches the picture with the arrow pointing to the man’s chin!

6. Guided Practice Spelling Words with Digraphs

Refer to the first picture and partially spelled word at the start of the second row.

Teacher script: Let’s try the next one together. This is a picture of a woman making a wish as she blows out the candles on her birthday cake. The word we need to spell is “wish.” Everyone say that with me: “wish.” Think about the word “wish” and what sounds you recognize in the word: /w/ /ĭ/ /sh/. Who can tell me which one of our digraphs you hear in the word “wish?”

Students: sh.

Teacher script: You recognized the sound /sh/ and knew that was our sh digraph! Do you hear the sound at the beginning or the end of the word “wish?”

Students: At the end.

Teacher script: When we say the word “wish,” we can hear the /sh/ sound at the end of the word. We can even continue the sound of the sh digraph if we want to: wishhhhhhhh. Now we’re ready to look at the word underneath the picture. Where is the blank line—at the beginning or the end of the word?

Students: At the end.

Teacher script: The blank line is at the end of the word where we hear the digraph in the word “wish.” What letters do you see before the line?

Students: “w” and “i.”

Teacher script: There is a “w” and an “i" before the blank line. Let’s say the sounds that those letters represent: /w/ / ĭ /. Now we need to write our digraph on the line to complete the spelling of the word “wish.” Which letters should I write?

Students: “s” and “h.”

Teacher script: The letters “s” and “h” spell the sound /sh/. To make sure we have spelled the word that names what is in the picture, let’s blend the sounds together and read the word.

Point to the graphemes as you pronounce each: /w/ /ĭ/ /sh/. Then, slowly blend the sounds to say the word: w-i-sh. Finally, quickly blend the sounds to say the word: “wish.”

Teacher script: That matches the picture of the woman making a birthday wish!

7. Independent Practice Spelling Words with Digraphs

To prepare students to complete the spellings of the remaining words on the handout, it is important to identify what is in each picture. Point to each image on the page and say the word that students will need to spell.

If students are not yet ready to work independently, have them work in pairs to complete the handout. As you monitor individual students or student pairs, refer to their completed words and ask them the following:

  • What digraph is in this word?
  • What sound does that digraph represent? Is it a sound you have to stop or a sound you can continue?
  • How can you remember the sound for this digraph?
  • Is the digraph at the beginning or the end of the word? How did you know?
  • Say each sound as you point to the letters that spell this word. Now blend them together and say the word.

Asking the questions above will reinforce connecting the sounds and with the appropriate graphemes.

Concluding the Lessons

When students have finished, display samples of their work. Point to different words (not to the pictures) and have the class say the words chorally. Call on individual students to identify the digraphs in selected words and their location in the words.

Conclude the lesson by reviewing all letter-sounds that students know, including the new digraphs that students learned in this lesson. Using cards similar to the samples shown for step 2 (introducing the concept) allows for building a deck of cards cumulatively. This can be a whole-group activity, led by the teacher, or students can use their own versions of the cards for peer practice. The cards should be shuffled, and students should be encouraged to respond quickly with the sound represented by each displayed grapheme. This will build students’ automaticity and thereby reduce the effort of sound-by-sound decoding when they read words in text.   

On subsequent days, students can practice reading and spelling the digraphs in different ways such as with word boxes, word sorts, magnetic letters, and digraph word reading fluency.

Supplemental Materials for Teachers

PDF iconSpell the Word

This handout contains pictures and partially spelled words that contain either the ch or sh digraph. Students will fill in the blank with the correct digraph to complete the spelling for the word that names what is shown in the picture above it.

PDF iconConsonant Digraph Cards

These cards feature the consonant digraphs ch and sh and can be used as part of a lesson teaching students to read, say, and spell words that have consonant digraphs.

References

Aboud, K. S., Bailey, S. K., Petrill, S. A., & Cutting, L. E. (2016). Comprehending text versus reading words in young readers with varying reading ability: Distinct patterns of functional connectivity from common processing hubs. Developmental Science, 19, 632-656. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12422

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6-10. https://doi.org/10.1177/074193258600700104

Murphy, K. A., & Farquharson, K. (2016). Investigating profiles of lexical quality in preschool and their contribution to first grade reading. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal29, 1745-1770. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-016-9651-y

Sabatini, J. P., Sawaki, Y., Shore, J. R., & Scarborough, H. S. (2010). Relationships among reading skills of adults with low literacy. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43, 122–138. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022219409359343


Grade: