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R-Controlled Vowel Activities

When we’re talking about reading, it seems like everything relies on the vowel and its sound, right?  Of course, there’s so much more to reading than just vowel sounds (let’s hear it for the digraphs and blends, shall we!?)  But it’s true that the vowel seems so versatile and comes with quite a few rules.  We first focus on short vowel sounds, then work our way onto long vowel sounds.  And then walk in the r-controlled vowels and give us a little run for our money. 🙂

R-controlled vowels are vowels that come right before the letter “r.”  And the hardest part? Because they’re immediately followed by an “r”, they don’t say their short or long vowel sound – they say something different.  That’s why r-controlled vowels can be a bit tricky.  Here are some examples: car, start, art, snore, fork, corn, herbs, term, clerk, bird, shirt, third, curl, purse, turf.  One of the tougher aspects of r-controlled vowels is that the pronunciation isn’t the same for all of them. The list below is a quick cheat sheet of the r-controlled vowel sounds:


“ar” → /ar/

“or” and “ore” → /or/

“er”, “ir”, “ur”, and “or” → /er/



Bossy R

Like the Silent (or Magic) E, the r-controlled vowels make the vowel say a different sound.  In fact, the letter “r” in these vowels is sometimes called the “Bossy R”, because it “bosses” the vowel by changing its sound.  Bossy R’s are everywhere in our English language, so there’s no avoiding them.  But, as with anything that can feel challenging, it’s nothing that a little practice won’t fix!  I can help with that.  I’ve come up with four simple activities that can make teaching r-controlled vowels a breeze.  

With r-controlled vowels, it’s always a good idea to teach starting with “ar” and “or” first, since they say different sounds.  When you’re doing these activities, feel free to group these two together, and the “er”, “ir”, and “ur” together.  Please note: “or” can also make the /er/ sound, but the /or/ sound is much more common.  For the sake of introduction, it’s best to stick with “or” making the /or/ sound and then moving onto “or” making the less common /er/ sound a bit later on. 

Okay – enough Bossy R chit chat!  Here are four r-controlled vowels activities, as promised!

Activities for r-controlled vowels

Search & Find

This activity is a great one to start with because all it requires is students finding the r-controlled vowels – not necessarily saying their sounds.

How to Play:  Grab some decodable texts and pass a copy out to each student.  While reading the text, students find and highlight, circle, or underline the r-controlled vowels within words.  (Fun tip: students love using highlighter tape if you’ve got it!) When the students are done, have them write the types of r-controlled vowels they found (ar, or, er, ir, or ur) in the margins.  To extend this activity, read on…


Bossy Board Work

This activity can be done separately from the Search & Find, but works great as an extension.

How to Play: Write each r-controlled vowel up on the board as big headings with columns so that the entire class can see.  Using the decodable readers in their Search & Find, students come up to the board and write down r-controlled words they found in their decodable texts under the correct headings.  This works best when you’ve given a few different decodable texts out to your students so they come to the board with different words.


Race to the Finish

Play is the medium through which kids learn best, so sprinkling games throughout the day really does make a difference.  This is one of my favorite ways to practice r-controlled vowels because, well, it’s just plain fun!

How to Play:  This will take just a *smidge* of prep on your end, but once you’re done, these game boards can be used over and over again. On a blank piece of paper, make a small path from one end to the other, dividing up the path into small square sections.  Inside each square, write an r-controlled vowel.  This works best if each game board focuses on one r-controlled vowel.

Students grab some game pieces and roll a die.  They move that many spots on the board.  Once they’ve landed on their spot, then say the word out loud.  The next person then goes, and players take turns rolling the die and reading the r-controlled vowel words. Play continues until someone reaches the end first!  These make great literacy centers, especially if they’re laminated.


Reading Intervention Mats

These r-controlled mats have come in clutch for so many reading rules, and the r-controlled mats are no exception!  When you grab these R-Controlled Reading Intervention Mats, you’ll get 50 mats focusing on words that contain “ar”, “or”, “er”, “ir”, and “ur.”  And, as always with these mats, students will not only focus on r-controlled vowels, but on other reading components as well.  When students work their way through these mats, they’ll also be working on fluency in isolation, phonemic awareness, handwriting, vocabulary, and comprehension.  


These mats are…

Simple: One of the best aspects about these mats is their simplicity.  This is exactly what makes these mats so effective – kids are able to focus on so many different components because the mats are consistent and easy to follow. 

Versatile: Partner work? Independent work? Literacy center? Whole group? Small group? These mats fit nice and neatly into all of these categories.  Partners can pair up to tackle a mat together, or even make a fun game out of it to see who can complete it first.  They’re great for independent work for fast finishers or even transition times (and who doesn’t love the idea of a smooth transition!?)  

For whole group phonics, project one of these mats up on the board and work through the mat together.  Or, rather, for small group targeted practice, use these mats to focus on specific reading components that students need extra help with.  My Growing Reading Intervention Mats Bundle is particularly essential for small group time because you’re able to choose from a variety of literacy components.

For anyone:  These mats are for any student and any teacher.  They’re perfect for students who simply need review and students who are earlier in their understanding of the topic.  Classroom teachers, teaching aids, reading specialists, tutors, and parents alike can gain benefits from these mats because of their ability to be used in a wide variety of settings.

With these activities and the R-Controlled Intervention Mats, the students can be the boss – not that pesky “r”!

Want more vowel activity ideas? Learn more about How to Teach Vowels!

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Aylin Claahsen

Providing resources and support to engage all readers.

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Hi, I'm Aylin!

I’m so happy you’re here! I’m a certified reading specialist who loves talking all things literacy. I have a huge passion for providing resources and support to engage all readers!


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