When digraphs ain’t digraphs

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When working on decoding and spelling two-syllable words with a student, I often use the TRUGS deck 4 cards, which include the word “mishap”.

Invariably, my students parse this as “mish-ap”, rhyming the first syllable with “fish”.

At first this made me want to get out my correction tape and replace “mishap” with a word that would give them more immediate syllable-parsing success.

Then I realised “mishap” provides a perfect opportunity to discuss how spellings that look like digraphs aren’t always digraphs, so we also need to think about what word parts mean and how letters might work separately when tackling unfamiliar words.

I now say that a mishap is a “mistake that has happened”, so it’s “mis-hap” not “mish-ap”. The letter S and the letter H are in different syllables. Other words with the prefix “mis” include misuse, mislead, miscast, misinform and misconduct. Everyone seems to take this in their stride.

My Filipino friend Neri (a human rights lawyer and former Congressman, who like many of President Duterte’s political opponents is now fighting trumped-up criminal charges, argh) likes to pretend not to speak very good English, and at Christmas always gleefully asks, “Where are the shefferds?” (sheph-erds, ha ha. When it’s time to pay for dinner, he also says, “Sorry, I left my wallay at the ballet”). One of the sad things about middle age is your friends tell a lot of Dad jokes.

I don’t think there is a proper term for apparent-digraphs-that-ain’t-digraphs, but I like to call them “false digraphs”.

Kids who have a solid understanding of which consonant combinations are permissible in English syllables, how to take words apart into syllables, how morphemes affect spelling, and how to flexibly try out plausible pronunciations when tackling new words should not find false digraphs difficult.

Here are a few more examples, for the word nerds:

  • a…e: agave, anemone, café, canapé, finale, glacé, karate, kamikaze, macramé, paté, sarape, sesame, shitake, valé. The French accented é informs pronunciation – think “resume” vs “resumé”, “expose vs exposé”, so please don’t drop it. There are also thousands of words like “cameo”, “javelin”,  “malevolent” and “saveloy”, with A and E one letter apart, which kids fixated on word appearance can insist are “bossy E” or “magic E” words, sigh, more can be found here.
  • ai: archaic, dais, Judaism, laity, mosaic, naïve, photovoltaic, prosaic, Zaire.
  • ar: apparel, Arabic, arable, arena, arid, baron, carat, caramel, caravan, caraway, caribou, carob, carol, chariot, charity, claret, clarity, haricot, lariat, marital, paragon, paragraph, parapet, parasol, parody, Paris, parish, scarab, tariff, plus of course words containing ARR like arrow, carrot and marry, though these aren’t a problem once kids know that doubled consonant letters usually signal a preceding “short”, or “checked” vowel.
  • aw: await, awake, award, aware, awash, away, nawab, seawall, seaward, seaweed.
  • ea: area, azalea, caveat, cereal, cochlea, cornea, create, deactivate, ethereal, firearms, genealogy, giveaway, hereafter, hideaway, idea, Ikea, Korea, likeable, lineage, linear, meander, Medea, nausea, Neanderthal, panacea, pancreas, permeate, poleaxe, protea, react, reality, rhea, tinea, and there are a lot more obscure words like this here.
  • er: beret, bolero, cereal, Ceres, cherub, cleric, derail, era, feral, gerund, herald, heresy, heretic, hero, heron, merit, peril, perish, query, reread, rerun, serial, series, serum, stereo, verify, very, xerox, zero, plus words containing ERR like error, ferry and terror, where kids need to know that doubled consonant letters usually signal a preceding “short”, or “checked” vowel.
  • ie: alien, ambient, anxiety, audience, client, diet, fiesta, lenient, notoriety, oriel, orient, piety, propriety, quiet, requiem, salient, satiety, Sienna, sierra, siesta, society, Soviet, variety, Vietnam, plus all the words ending in IER and IEST like drier, driest, skier, copier, luckier, luckiest etc.
  • ew: beware, bewitch, bikeway, dewater, deworm, eyewash, eyewear, freeway, gateway, laneway, leeway, prewash, prewar, prewarn, prewrap, raceway, reward, rewarm, rewash, reweave, rewind, rewire, reword, rework, rewrite, sideways.
  • ir: aspirin, biro, inquiry, irate, iris, jabiru, pirate, siren, spiral, spirit, tirade, virile, virus, wiry, plus words with IRR like chirrup, cirrus, irrelevant, irrigate, irritate, mirror, squirrel and stirrup.
  • ng: angel, angle, angina, angora, angry, bangle, bingo, bungee, Congo, dangle, dingo, dongle, drongo, engage, engine, engulf, finger, fungal, gangly, hanger, gringo, hinged, hungry, jingle, jungle, language, linger, mango, mangle, mangy, mingle, ranger, rangy, singed, singer, single, ringer, stronger, tangy, Tonga. Kids should be taught that the digraph “ng” is used at the end of words, though these words are sometimes used to build longer words like “singalong” and “ringlet” (where “let” is a diminutive suffix, as in “booklet”, “droplet”, “owlet”, “piglet” and “starlet”).
  • oa: boa, coagulate, coalesce, coauthor, doable, feijoa, goanna, Genoa, inchoate, koala, oasis, protozoa.
  • oe: coedit, coerce, coexist, Noël (perhaps the New Yorker is right about the diaeresis) , phloem, poem, poet.
  • oi: doing, echoic, egoism, going, heroin, heroine, stoic.
  • oo: cooperate, coopt, zoology.
  • or: coral, forage, floral, florid, florist, forest, loris, nori, moral, oral, orange, orient, origin, plus words with ORR like borrow, horror, lorry, corrupt, sorry and torrent.
  • ow: cowrite, towards.
  • ph: flophouse, loophole, scrapheap, slaphappy, shepherd, upheaval, uphill, uphold, upholstery.
  • sh: disharmony, dishearten, dishonest, dishonour, gashouse, goshawk, hogshead, mishandle, mishap, mishear, mishit (ehem), transhistorical.
  • th: bolthole, fathead, foothill, hothead, hothouse, nuthouse, outhouse, porthole, pothole, pothook, warthog.
  • ue: cruet, duenna, duet, fluent, habitue, minuet, suede, suet.  I would add cruel, duel, fuel and gruel to this list, but I know many people pronounce them as one-syllable words. There are also stacks of words containing QUE and GUE, both at word beginnings and middles, like quest and guest and segue, and at word endings, like mosque and league.
  • ur: bury, century, curate, curious, durable, during, fury, jury, guru, injury, lurid, luring, mural, plural, puree, rural, urea, plus of course words containing URR like burrow, curry, furrow, hurrah, hurry and turret.
  • wh: arrowhead, blowhard, blowhole , cowhand, cowherd, rawhide, sawhorse, towhead.

I guess the key message from all this is to avoid telling learners that certain spellings “always” represent a certain sound or sounds (stick to “usually”), and teach about syllable structure and meaningful word parts, so kids get a good handle on all the ways words can be taken apart and put back together.


7 responses to “When digraphs ain’t digraphs”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    The majority of those words with two consonants digraphs are compound words. It is really quite intriguing how many English words are compound words that we don’t even really think about.

  2. Lindy says:

    A few of the words have prefixes. So teaching those words as belonging to a group with the same prefix is another strategy e.g. co- words, dis- words or mis- words

    • alison says:

      Yes, I do work on prefixes and suffixes quite a bit, starting off with the inflectional suffixes like plural S and past tense ED very early on, and then moving on to prefixes and derivational suffixes, and it is really helpful to kids.

  3. Maria says:

    If students are explicitly taught phonemic awareness right from the beginning they will know that mishap has 6 phonemes. sh is not a digraph it is 2 phonemes. A digraph is one phoneme (sound) represented by 2 graphemes (letters).

    • alison says:

      Yes, that’s my point, but I guess I should have emphasised phonemic awareness more than I did in this post. Thanks for the feedback. Alison

  4. Scott says:

    I have on word to say to your detractors who dismiss your argument by pointing the predominance of compound words among you faux digraph examples by offering “upholstery” as your first non-compound faux digraph for “ph”.

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