OU and OW: A Two-Part Spelling Generalization

OU or OW spelling strategies


Not all spelling generalizations are as neat and tidy as you might like them to be. Just as the spelling generalizations for the floss rule, ck and tch build on each other, the same is true for the vowel spelling generalizations. By the time your students are introduced to ou as in ouch and ow as in plow, they have already had the opportunity to learn and practice the ai/ay spelling generalization. The ou/ow spelling generalization builds on that knowledge and adds a little bit of a twist.

Typically, you can teach this spelling generalization in two parts after having taught the phonograms individually. It is worth noting that the /ow/ sound is neither a short nor a long sound, but “something else”. Technically speaking, it is a diphthong, but for the needs of your students, it is important for them to recognize that it is neither long nor short. It is also a prime example of why we should avoid the highly unreliable “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” adage. More on that in The Top Ten Tips For Teaching Vowel Teams.


Part one of the spelling generalization is almost the same as the ai/ay rule. When you hear the /ow/ sound at the beginning or in the middle of a syllable, it is usually spelled ou. When you hear the /ow/ sound at the end of a syllable, it is usually spelled ow. For ou, this holds true very consistently. I can’t think of a single instance where /ow/ is spelling ou at the end of a word.

Some words that follow this generalization include:

out                  ouch                couch               pout                 shout

cow                 plow                brow                how                 now


While this is quite straight forward, care must be taken initially to avoid words in which ow does not fall at the end of the syllable. To address those instances requires part two of the spelling generalization. When the /ow/ sound is followed by just an n or just an l, it is usually spelled with ow. It may be helpful to think of these as word families that follow the 2nd part of the rule. Typically, it is helpful to demonstrate to students that this only applies when the n or l is alone at the end of the word. Words like found, count and lounge are spelled with ou because the n is not alone after the /ow/ sound.

Some words that follow this generalization include:

owl      growl               howl                town                down               clown



There are occasions where ow will make the /ow/ sound at the end of the first syllable in a 2 syllable word, but this is not very common.

These words usually fit one of these patterns, where the first syllable is accented and the second syllable ends in er or el.

Tower              power              towel               vowel


In order to teach this spelling generalization, it is helpful for students to be able to segment 4 or 5 sounds, be familiar with the vowel team syllable type and have already learned the ai/ay generalization. I strongly suggest teaching the phonograms ou and ow individually first before tackling the decision of when we use each of these spellings. It is important that students apply this spelling generalization to the base word before adding suffixes.


Your students can use some guiding questions to help them make a decision when writing a new word:

  • What is the base word?
  • Where do I hear the vowel sound?

What sound do I hear after the /ow/ sound?


Some teaching ideas for you to include are:


  • Sorting – You can sort words by spelling or sort pictures by vowel location to build phonemic awareness skills.


  • Start from the known – Many students have a collection of sight words such as out, shout, down, brown, now and how that they are already familiar with. These words can act as anchors to help students apply the spelling generalization.


  • Review activities – It is helpful to practice both possible locations for ow during the blending drill by occasionally following ow with an l or n. Playing games with spelling choices where students must choose ou or ow to complete a given word also reinforces this concept.


  • Dictation — Make sure to avoid using ou and ow in dictation after you have taught the individual sounds until you have taught part 1 of the generalization. Avoid words that follow part 2 until that has been taught. When it is necessary to use them before this has been taught, scaffold which spelling choice the student should use.


  • Games – Incorporate words with ou and ow vowel teams frequently in review lists and games.


  • Spiral and Review – I recommend keeping the ou and ow vowel cards as part of the card drill, blending drill and incorporating it into dictation often. Be aware that although students may be automatic with writing words such as down and now, they may not be able to automatically use this phonogram when spelling less familiar words such as yowl.


  • Verbalize – It is valuable to have students verbalize how they know which spelling of the /ow/ sound they are going to use based on its location in the word.

OU or OW spelling strategies


While teaching a two-part spelling generalization may seem unnecessarily complex, it provides students with a useful framework for problem solving this common vowel team.

This is an excellent foundation for the sort of complex considerations that come into play when students learn suffix rules down the road.

If you are seeking more advanced practice, you’ll want to check out this Spelling Generalizations bundle.

spelling rules resource


Be sure to catch the other spelling generalization blog posts HERE for LOTS more tips. I’ve got you covered. 😉






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