Is It AU or AW: Spelling Strategies For Vowel Teams


The spelling generalizations for vowels really are cumulative. Although it may take a lot of practice for your students to internalize them, an understanding of the principles at work is very important. As your students continue to learn less frequent vowel teams, they will need to draw on their knowledge about other vowel teams and use what they know to help them develop new understandings. The following are some spelling strategies for vowel teams.

AU and AW are two vowel teams that have spelling generalizations. Here are some spelling strategies for vowels teams.

The vowel teams au and aw are advanced material. Not only do they make an unexpected sound, but they have a complex two part spelling generalization that accompanies them. By the time your students are introduced to au as in August and aw as in saw, they have already had the opportunity to learn and practice the ou/ow spelling generalization. The au/aw spelling generalization builds on that knowledge.

Typically, you can teach this spelling generalization in two parts after having taught the phonograms individually. It is worth noting that the /ȯ/ sound as in saw or August is very much affected by regional dialect. Depending on where your child is from, this sound is nearly identical to the short o sound or it is a distinct separate sound. Technically speaking, it is a diphthong, but for the needs of your students, it is important for them to recognize the phonograms and associate them with the correct sound according to the region in which they live.

NOTE: This vowel team is further evidence that “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” can cause more confusion than good. Here are my favorite spelling strategies for vowels teams.

PART ONE Spelling Strategies for Vowel Teams

Part one of the spelling generalization is almost the same as the ou/ow and ai/ay rule. When you hear the / ȯ / sound at the beginning or in the middle of a syllable, it is usually spelled au. When you hear the / ȯ / sound at the end of a syllable, it is usually spelled aw. For au, this holds true very consistently.

Some words that follow this generalization include:

taut                  aunt                 fraud               pause               August

saw                  draw                claw                 caw                  jaw

While this is quite straight forward, take care to initially to avoid words in which aw does not fall at the end of the syllable.

PART TWO Spelling Strategies for Vowel Teams

To address those instances requires part two of the spelling generalization. When the / ȯ / sound is followed by just an n or just an l, it is usually spelled with aw. 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 your students that this only applies when the n or l is alone at the end of the word. Words like haunt, fault and aunt are spelled with au because the n is not alone after the / ȯ / sound.

Some words that follow this generalization include:

awl                  brawl               shawl               pawn               lawn                drawn

There are occasions where aw will make the / ȯ / sound at the end of the first syllable in a 2 syllable word, besides a compound word, but this is quite uncommon.

Some examples are:

lawyer (not a true / ȯ/ sound)            Pawnee                       Shawnee

Finally, there are exceptions to this generalization where / ȯ/ is spelled aw outside of these circumstances as in the word family hawk, gawk and squawk.

In order to teach this spelling generalization, it is helpful for your 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 and ou/ow generalizations. I strongly suggest you teach the phonograms au and aw individually first before tackling the decision of when we use each of these spellings. It is important that your students apply this spelling generalization to the base word before adding suffixes.

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 / ȯ / sound?

Here are some ideas for you to use when teaching spelling strategies for vowels teams:

  • 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 few known words of this pattern such as saw, claw or dawn 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 /ȯ/ during the blending drill by occasionally following aw with an l or n. Playing games with spelling choices where students must choose au or aw to complete a given word also reinforces this concept.
  • Dictation — Make sure to avoid using au and aw 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 au and aw vowel teams frequently in review lists and games.
  • Spiral and Review – I recommend keeping the au and aw 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 a word such as saw, they may not be able to automatically use this phonogram when spelling less familiar words such as squaw or thaw.
  • Verbalize – It is valuable to have students verbalize how they know which spelling of the / ȯ / sound they are going to use based on its location in the word.

This complex problem solving will provide your students with a useful framework for word analysis!  It will also become necessary when they learn more complex considerations or later suffix rules.

au aw spelling strategies for vowels teams
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If you’ve enjoyed this blog post and are looking for more posts on spelling generalizations, this is part of a whole series! Read more posts on teaching reading and spelling generalizations

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

spelling rules resource. Tips for teaching spelling generalizations for long o. Incudes long o spelling choices: ow oe oa

If you enjoyed these spelling generalizations for long o, be sure to catch the other spelling generalization blog posts HERE for LOTS more tips. I’ve got you covered. 😉

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