What is a Digraph? Understanding This Phonics Building Block

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What is a digraph? If you’re teaching phonological awareness or reading, you’ll need to know! A digraph is a building block of literacy for any young reader.

But how do you teach digraphs in phonics? And what is a consonant digraph? Grab your favorite warm beverage, and let’s dive into the basics of this important part of phonics!

Digraph Definition

To really answer the question “what is a digraph,” it’s worth going back to the word origin. The word digraph dates back to the 1700s. By definition, a digraph is the term used to describe two consecutive letters that work together to make one sound.

Digraphs are a kind of grapheme — a word that refers to any unit (such as a letter or group of letters) in a writing system. In this case, graphemes are letters or groups of letters in English.

Making sense? We’ve got one more important phonics term for you!  The English language is made up of about 44 phonemes, the word for the individual speech sounds that make up words. Phonemes can be written in more than 200 letter combinations known as — you guessed it — graphemes and digraphs!

To help you keep it all straight, download a phonics vocabulary pack

What Are the Most Common Digraphs in the English Language?

Digraphs are often taught in order, starting with those most commonly appearing in English words. Here are some common digraph examples students will encounter:

  • ch (as in chin),
  • ch (as in school),
  • ng (as in sing),
  • ph (as in phone),
  • sh (as in ship),
  • th (as is think),
  • wh (as is wheel)

Teaching phonics? Explore our Phonics Games Collection!

What Is a Consonant Digraph?

There are several kinds of digraphs that students will encounter as readers. First up, let’s talk about consonant digraphs.

A consonant digraph is a combination of two consonants that represent one sound. For example, the “wr” digraph represents the sound /r/ in words like write, wriggle, and wrong.

While some consonant digraphs will represent the sound made by a letter of the alphabet — such as the /f/ sound created by the digraph “ph” in the words phone or phonics — others create new sounds such as “sh” or “ch.”

Image of Blending Phoneme Puzzles - 4-Phoneme Puzzles

teaching resource

Blending Phoneme Puzzles - 4-Phoneme Puzzles

Master blending phonemes with 4-phoneme blending puzzles as a reading center activity.

Teach Starter Publishing4 pagesGrades: K - 1
Image of FIND IT! Digraphs Board Game

teaching resource

FIND IT! Digraphs Board Game

Practice decoding words that include 4 examples of consonant digraphs with our digraph flashcards and board game set.

Teach Starter Publishing6 pagesGrades: 1 - 2
Image of SMASH IT! Digraphs Game

teaching resource

SMASH IT! Digraphs Game

Segment phonemes and identify the digraphs in this set of 18 game boards and letter cards.

Teach Starter Publishing14 pagesGrades: 1 - 2

What Is a Vowel Digraph?

If a consonant digraph is made up of consonants, then it stands to reason that a vowel digraph is a combination of two vowels that represent one sound. For example, the “oa” digraph represents the long /o/ sound. Another vowel digraph example students will encounter as they begin to read is “ea” which creates the long /e/ sound in words like “wheat” and “read.”

What is the Difference Between a Digraph and a Blend?

Have you heard the terms digraph and blend thrown around? They seem like they’d be the same thing, but don’t be deceived!

While they look the same, there is a major difference between a digraph and a blend. A digraph is defined as two letters that make a single sound. The blend is a combination of letters whose sounds are linked together, but not combined when forming a word. The blend stands apart because its letters still make two distinct sounds.

For example, the “sl” combination in “sleep” is a blend, rather than a digraph. That is because you still pronounce the /s/ and /l/ sounds when pronouncing the word.

Another difference between a digraph and a blend is that a digraph can be made up of two consonants or two vowels, while blends are only made up of consonants.

This video shows a simple way to teach students segmenting and blending:

 

Understanding Syllables to Identify Digraphs

Sometimes, when children are learning to decode words in a text, they encounter letter combinations that appear to be digraphs but don’t actually fit the digraph definition. For example, if students identify “ng” as a single sound in words like “bang” or “sing”, they must also be able to recognize that those letters represent separate sounds in words like “mango.”

A knowledge of syllables (and how to break them down) is important so that children are able to distinguish between the two representations. Students must understand that the “ng” in mango appears where the word would be broken into syllables. Digraphs cannot cross syllable boundaries, as they must make one sound. In this case, the “ng” in mango is not a digraph, since both sounds are clearly pronounced in separate syllables. In the word man/go, the sounds are read as separate consonant sounds, thereby eliminating the “ng” from being labeled as a digraph.

Digraph Activities

Teaching about digraphs? Use these engaging and curriculum-aligned digraph activities to unlock understanding of this key phonics concept!

Image of Building Sundaes - Digraphs

teaching resource

Building Sundaes - Digraphs

Identify initial and final consonant digraphs with this set of 4 yummy digraph sundaes.

Teach Starter Publishing3 pagesGrades: 1 - 2
Image of Beginning Digraphs Sorting Activity

teaching resource

Beginning Digraphs Sorting Activity

Practice decoding words by their initial digraphs with a set of 20 picture sorting cards.

Teach Starter Publishing7 pagesGrades: 1 - 2
Image of Ending Digraphs Sorting Activity

teaching resource

Ending Digraphs Sorting Activity

Practice decoding words by sorting 20 picture cards by their ending digraphs.

Teach Starter Publishing8 pagesGrades: 1 - 2

Explore the full Digraphs Teaching Resource collection!

 

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