The Syllable Series: Part 3- The R Controlled Syllable


Welcome back everyone! This is part three in my six part syllable series.
A few quick reminders:

  • If you are new to this series: Please read part one and click here. Read part two and click here
  • In order to follow along with this series, please download a chart I created on the six syllable types by clicking here. It spells out CLOVER. Each letter in CLOVER stands for a syllable type, but is NOT taught in that order.
  •  I am blogging in the order the syllable types should be taught, so just follow along and you’ll see how I do it. 
  • Have you grabbed your copy or CLOVER yet? Great! Let’s dig into part three!

    Think back to when you were a kid. I was the youngest of three so I was bossed around quite a bit by my older sister. (Don’t worry. She doesn’t do that anymore. We’re actually very close.) Having a bossy older sis meant that if ANYone tried to boss me around when we were playing either in my neighborhood or school playground, I would steer clear. Who wanted to be bossed around by a friend when you got plenty of that at home? Bossiness was my least favorite character trait as a child.

    What does all this talk of bossiness have to do with r-controlled syllables?
    Years ago at the beginning of my journey in working with dyslexic children and multisensory instruction, I was trained in Project Read Phonology. This was before my formal OG training. When we got to the syllable types, we called the r-controlled syllable the ‘Bossy R’. Anyone remember the Bossy R? We had a picture of a letter r appearing to bark at the vowel that preceded it. It had a mean face and it sure looked bossy. 

    What is the r-controlled syllable?
    This definition has several layers to it. I’m going to explain it and then discuss something called frequency. R controlled vowels are all the vowels with an -r. We have ar, or, ir, er, and ur. Ear and our can also be included. The vowel preceding the r does not make it’s typical short or long sound so we say the r is controlling (or bossing) the vowel by making it say a new sound. (Hence, the bossy r story.) Some of the r-controlled vowels have more than one sound.
    The sound of er (I’ll shorthand it and write it as er sometimes, just so you know.) can be spelled er, ir, or ur. There’s really no hard and fast rule for kids to know which one to use when spelling so that is where frequency comes in handy. There is a frequency in how often words with the er come up in the English language. 

    • Most frequent spelling for er: er
    • Fairly frequent spelling for er: ir
    • Least common spelling for er: ur

    Knowing that there is a frequency has helped my students a great deal.
    **Some people like to make an easy sentence up to help kids remember the frequency. If you have a good one, please share in the comments!

    Now the tricky part with some r controlled vowels is that some may have a schwa sound. Words with or like in doctor can have the er sound. Words with ar can have a long sound like marry or schwa like dollar. Please note: I am NOT getting into schwa sounds in this post. For some strange reason people hear schwa and it strikes fear in the hearts of many, or it’s downright confusing to them. Schwa sounds are a whole new can of worms, but don’t worry! It will come up in a future post, so stay with me!
    Let me emphasize that we want students to be able to recognize the r-controlled syllable when they read.

    • They should know how to break it down.
    • Syllabicate it.
    • Read it. That will assist with spelling strategies and build reader confidence and success.

    How I teach this syllable type: Marking Syllables 
    One of the methods I use for teaching r-controlled vowels is marking syllables. It is a way of bringing students attention to letters, sounds, and syllables using diacritical marks above an below the letters in a word. Some may see this as a tedious task at first. It is a methodical and careful process, but one that does not have to be done for every word. It is in fact a very useful exercise for breaking words apart into syllables. Marking syllables becomes a routine. It is one that becomes imprinted so well, that when I student goes to read an unknown word in a book, they look at a word critically by picturing the diacritical marks in their head. Believe me. I even do it when I read an unknown word sometimes.

    In the following pictures, I show the steps for marking words with r controlled syllables. I realize I have jumped into marking syllables within part three without going over it in prior posts. If you are new to this process, please try not to get overwhelmed. The pictures will show how to do it with single syllable words. I promise to devote more time to using diacritical marks with multi-syllabic words when I get into my rules for syllable division series. Haven’t started that one yet, so I hope you’ll join me when I do!

    I intro one r-controlled vowel at a time. I start with ar as in car. After I use my multisensory methods to intro it, I practice marking syllables with other ar words. Take a look at the steps below.

    I know some teachers have students follow these steps using a different color as they mark the letters. I like doing it on a white board with just a few words. I do NOT have my students go through a list of 20 words and mark each one. Five at a time is a good starting point. Once they know how to mark single syllable words, they’ll be ready for multi-syllabic words and this is where it really helps with decoding and encoding. More on that later.

    I continue my practice of r controlled syllables with plenty of repeated practice, but in a variety of multisensory formats that I have mentioned in earlier posts. See the first paragraph for links to the others. As a reminder, having controlled text with lots of r controlled words will provide the fluency practice a struggling reader needs to succeed at this syllable type. Reading and writing successfully, by independently using efficient decoding and encoding strategies is the ultimate goal.

    Wondering why multisensory instruction is SO important? Read here.

    Read the whole the Six Syllable Types Blog series.

    Read Helpful Strategies For Syllable Division for more syllable practice tips!

     Where can I find out more?

    I have created several sets for teaching r controlled vowels that I use with my students.  Click here to find r-controlled vowel materials.

    Still wondering why multisensory instruction is SO important? Read here.

    Do you have a practical way to teach this syllable type? Id love to hear about it in the comments below!

    Before you go…
    Please be sure to sign up to receive my monthly newsletter by email. You can sign up in the right sidebar of this blog. Thank you!

    For teaching materials to teach the syllable types, look here

    Looking for materials to support multisensory instruction? Find them in my store here. 

    Join me next time for part four in this series: Open Syllables


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    1. I love how you teach the syllables. As a matter of fact, maybe we were twins separated at birth:) We teach them similarly at We’re still a young company so we don’t have all the freebies yet, but we have videos (with a monthly subscription) that teach how to teach reading. I love your material:)

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