What is a digraph?


When your child comes home from school and starts speaking to you about digraphs, which of course no-one ever taught you about, how do you respond?  Once you've read this article you will know how!

First - what is a digraph?  Digraphs are simply sounds with two letters.  For example the 'ee' in 'cheek' or the 'ue' in 'due'.  They are two letters that form one sound.  In fact the clue is in the name - 'Di' means double in Ancient Greek (think of 'bi' which means two).  'Graph' means to write, or in this case letters.  So you have two ('di') letters ('graph').

Vowel and Consonant Digraphs
What is a vowel digraph?  A digraph can be made of vowels (like "oo") or consonants (like "ch") or both (like "ow").  If it makes a vowel, sound (like the "ew" in "blew") then it is a vowel digraph, if it makes a consonant, sound ("ck") then it is a consonant digraph.  I include this for information, but I don't think it is a big deal; I wouldn't advise trying to explain this to children until and unless they bring it up.
In fact a grapheme (another term your child might end up teaching you) is just a combination of one or more letters that represents a sound (also called a phoneme).

Digraphs are super important, and in some ways it is like learning a new letter sound.  The sound a digraph makes often doesn't follow rules so they just need to be learnt -which isn't always easy!

How to learn about digraphs

Digraphs are just part of phonics and learning to read.  Flash cards can be a good way of introducing and even practicing them as you can explain the concept in isolation.  I've found the Jolly Phonics flash cards to be excellent all round card that really help you learn.

Learning digraphs with Flash Cards

There are three sounds in "b oat t".  The dots underneath each grapheme help tell the child that the "oa" is one sound.
There are three sounds in "b oat t". The dots underneath each grapheme help tell the child that the "oa" is one sound.

How did you teach your child letter sounds?  It's the same for digraphs!  There's lots of ways, but using flash cards with letters they already know, and then gradually adding in some digraphs I've found to work well.  Just tell them "These two letters together make this sound."

A good starting point with learning concepts is sorting.  If you have some flash cards you could always get your child to sort the flash cards into groups with the same digraphs (so "book" and "food" go together).  This works well to get them to recognise a digraph (or trigraph).  It works with split digraphs as well as normal digraphs.

Once they can sort (or straight away if you feel like it) you can ask your child to find the digraph.  Say the sound and see if they can find the word with the digraph that makes that sound in it (start with a small selection of 3-4 words).

Finally you can get them to to say the word themselves.  In this case sort the flashcards into words they can say easily and those they struggle with.  Intersperse the more difficult ones with the ones they know already.

Digraphs in Books

Of course there is no substitute for reading actual books.  Oxford Reading Tree offer a great series called 'Songbirds' by Julia Donaldson. They aren't really to do with songs, or birds but help practice phonics, including digraphs and trigraphs.

But you can do it with any book.  If your child is struggling with a word perhaps give them a hint (eg tell them there is a split digraph).  If they are reading confidently perhaps check their understanding by asking them questions like "Which word has a split digraph?".

I started with my son with flash cards and when he could handle words on their own, moved on to teaching him digraphs via Oxford Reading Tree.


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