Diphthongs: What Are They and How Do I Teach Them?

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What is a Diphthong?

A diphthong is a vowel sound where the vowel glides between an initial sound and a second sound. This means that while making a diphthong vowel sound, your tongue will have to move between two different vowel sounds in the same syllable. This may sound complicated, but, at this point, your child has probably already mastered a couple of diphthongs without even thinking about it. For example the “ow” in “how” or the Long A in “same.”  Although linguists differ on the number of diphthongs in English, this article will go over the most common ones used in a “standard” American accent. 

If you need any more phonics help, check out our Phonics Home Page for lessons, flashcards, and articles.

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The Most Common Diphthongs in American English

Listed below are the 8 most common diphthongs in American English. If you have already been practicing long vowel sounds, many of these should be familiar. The brackets to the right of the title for each diphthong is their IPA symbols. You can use these IPA symbols to look up these sounds if that is easier for you.

  1. Long A sound (eI)

This sound is like the “a” in “face.” To learn more about Long A, take a look at our lesson that specifically looks at Long A and its most common patterns.

  1. “ai” sound (eə)

This diphthong makes a sound like the “ai” in “hair” or the “ea” in “bear.”

  1. Long E sound (ɪə)

This sound is like the “ea” in “sea.” To learn more about Long E, take a look at our lesson that specifically looks at Long E and its most common patterns.

  1. Long I sound (aɪ)

This sound is like the “i” in “line.” To learn more about Long I, take a look at our lesson that specifically looks at Long I and its most common patterns.

  1. Long O sound (əʊ)

This sound is like the “o” in “go.” To learn more about Long O, take a look at our lesson that specifically looks at Long O and its most common patterns.

  1.  “oi/oy” sound (ɔɪ)

This diphthong makes a sound like the “oi” in “toilet” or the “oy” in “boy.”

  1. “Ow” sound (aʊ)

This diphthong makes a sound like the “ow” in “cow.” 

  1. “Oo”  (ʊə)

This diphthong makes a sound like the “oo” in “cool.”

How to Teach Diphthongs

Teach diphthongs in the same way you would teach any other bit of phonics to children. There is no need to teach them what a diphthong is, but you should know so you can help them with these sounds. Start with the long vowels (A, E, I, O) as they are common and easily understood by children since they just say the names of their respective letters. After these sounds are all learned, you can move on to the other four diphthongs listed above and teach them one sound at a time. 

  1. Start by associating the sound with a word they already know (the “oy” sound with “boy”). 
  2. Ensure they can make the sound correctly.
  3. Make sure they can hear the difference between this sound and other sounds that may be similar (use sets of words that are the same except for the target sound ex. Boy (oi sound), Boo (oo sound), Bow (Long O sound), and Bow (ow sound).
  4. Teach them common examples of words that use this sound.
  5. Go over common patterns to look for when reading that may indicate this sound.
  6. Have them use these words in games, conversations, or in reading.

Games to Teach Diphthongs

Games are a great way to help teach children anything. Here are some ideas for games you can use to help your children learn diphthong sounds, or really any phonics!

  1. Make flashcards that have a picture that represents one of the diphthongs. If your child likes to draw and color, encourage them to make it their own by decorating it. If drawing is too hard, you could draw it and have them color it. 
  2. Try playing flashcard games. They do not need to be too complicated or elaborate. Hide the target flashcard, have them find it, and then they say the sound. Or, you could place the flashcards around the room, say one of the sounds, and race to be the first to touch that flashcard. Be creative with your games, and focus on fun and having them say and recognize the sounds.
  3. Listening games are a great way to train their English listening skills. One of my favorite games has the kids listening for a target sound and racing to raise their hands when they hear it. First, give them the target sound. Then, tell them to raise their hand if they hear that sound. Finally, start saying different phonics sounds. Make sure to vary your volume or tone. When they hear the correct sound, they can raise their hand, and the first one to raise their hand wins. 
  4. Read storybooks that emphasize one or more of these sounds. Have them sound-out the words in the book, or if the book is too hard, then you can read most of it while the child reads repeated, easy words or phrases. 
  5. Look on YouTube for some great phonics songs that your kids can listen to when you don’t have time to be actively teaching them.
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Conclusion

For many people, diphthongs sound like an intimidating thing. In reality, they are just another phonics lesson. When teaching your child, focus on one sound at a time and make sure they are proficient at saying that diphthong, being able to hear the difference between that diphthong and another sound, and recognizing patterns that indicate that diphthong. If English isn’t your first language, have a teacher take a look and listen to your child so they can verify that they are on the right track. You don’t want to teach them bad habits at an early age. Finally, review, review, review. When you do it right, English isn’t a chore or a class, it becomes a new way for them to explore and have fun.

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