Teaching r-controlled vowels

Teaching r-controlled vowels

Bossy r?

I never let consonants boss me around, do you? So why would we call r bossy? R controlled vowels can be some of the trickiest concepts to teach, this is true, but is calling them bossy r to an older student appropriate? To teach these spellings to a student, we need to have a deeper understanding of the history and circumstances surrounding these spellings. This post will address spellings pronounced /ur/ in the medial or final positions.

D.W. Cummings is my go-to author; he led me to Venezky, Jespersen, and Dobson. I have added some references at the end of this post. D.W. Cummings refers to r controlled vowels as r colored vowels. He speaks of the once distinct vowel sound being leached out. (American English Spelling pg 351) He goes on to say the vowel and the r are now pronounced simultaneously, one on top of the other. (American English Spelling pg 351) He and others refer to the sound we hear in the word bird as /ur/, and in this post, I will as well.

When my student looks up at me in frustration wondering why there are so many /ur/ choices, I am happy to have an answer. I like to remind them that English is fluid, always changing. Sometimes the spelling changed to reflect the pronunciation; other times, it did not. We can study the etymology of a word and see how much the spelling has changed. Since we don’t have a recording of what English sounded like centuries ago, experts make a suggestion as to how it may have sounded. But what we do know for sure, is that it is very different than how we speak today. In the United States, dialects affect sounds demonstrating how varied a language can be inside itself. An example is in the Northeast where the r is completely dropped and replaced with a schwa sound.

So why are there so many spellings of /ur/? Let’s look at the history of these three confusing spellings: <er, ir,> and <ur>. Before the 16th-century <ir, ur, er> and <wor> had separate, distinct sounds. Around 1600, ir and ur converged to the same sound, different than how each had been pronounced before. Spellings also changed at this time, as in chirche, which became church. At this time, <er> still held a separate, distinct sound till 1700 when <ur, ir,> and <er> held a sound similar to Modern English. Words containing <wor> also shifted to an /ur/ pronunciation. 

D.W. Cummings states there are nine major spellings for /ur/. I find it interesting that he lists <ir> and <irr> as separate spellings based on the etymology of the word.

<er> (medial) emerge        <er> (final) her, defer

<ir> (medial) dirt                <ir> (final) stir                    <irr>   squirrel

<ur> (medial) curl              <ur> (final) blur                  <urr> curry

minor spellings are:

<ear> earth

<our> nourish

These two spellings have a long history of change originating from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. Pronunciation changed, and in some instances, so did spelling. Some words with short <e+r> changed to <ar>. Some converged with <ur>, <ir>, and <ear>, as in earth. Others with French origins are now spelled <our>, as in nourish. Words such as heart resisted change in spelling (as others changed to <ar>) but changed in pronunciation.

Now let’s think about the suffixes <er, or> and <ar>as /ur/. 

<or> is used to form nouns, as in quality or condition. Formally written as <our>, but Americanized to <or> as in color or honor.

<ar> is usually after l, from the root arim/aris meaning pertaining to. Many other words that end in <ar>  have interesting etymologies. Look them up!

<er> from several Old English spellings and origins used as a comparative suffix or as a noun ending. Now, if you want to go deep into a rabbit hole, read about the jocular forming of soccer!

So now that we understand the history, how should we introduce these spellings to a student? Most OG boxed programs will separate the introduction of these spellings, and you should too. Before I teach any r control vowel to a younger student, I will be sure they are very solid with beginning r blends. As many of you have seen, students will often mix up words such as drat and dart. As an OG practitioner, I teach spellings from the most common to the least common. When teaching /ur/, <er> is seen most often as a suffix, which is an easy way to teach younger students about the concept of a suffix. I will also teach them <er> in the body of a word. I will teach the rest in this order: <ir, ur, ear>, followed by <or> and <ar> as a suffix. I was taught this way and it works for me. I always leave plenty of time between the introduction of new spellings. They read extensive word lists; however, I tend to dictate words that are applicable to them. I like using curl, curb, and cursive to get them thinking about soft c. I encourage you to read more about these spellings. When looking at it historically, you are giving your students more information to use to decode words and meanings. This is a wonderful time to introduce your student to Structured Word Inquiry.

As you can see, the r is far from bossy. It is the history of English that determined the sounds, not the r! English language history is complex and revealing. Our students deserve to know more. A final note, I intentionally left off the IPA symbols of /ur/. I found the history and articulation piece fascinating too! However, I feel the problem we face with /ur/ and our students is directly related to which /ur/ to use when, and the confusion between r blends and r-controls. The page you see in my cover illustration comes from my word book. I have attached that link and a down and dirty explanation of the IPA symbol for /ur/ in my resource list below!

happy,  (not bossy) /ur/

After writing this article I came upon this little gem.  I found it rather humorous in the sense that a scholar also has a hard time setting a generalization to this confusion. I cut and pasted the excerpt below from 


Dr. Cummings was asked,”Hello Dr. Cummings, I'm wondering if you could give me any sort of rhyme or reason to the various r controlled spellings? Are there reasons to when /er/, /ir/, and /ur/ are utilized. How about /or/ or /ar/ is the /er/ sound? So confusing for young (all) spellers!

He responded with,”I wish I could be more help than I think I am going to be. I wrote a chapter on [r]–colored vowels in American English Spelling, but I don think it would help much either. Neither did the pre-publication reviewer.

Lets concentrate on cases where the spelling comes at the end of the word: In Commonwords there are 648 total instances of <er>, of which 376 come at the end of the word. There are 148 for <or>, 100 of which are word-final; as are 36 of the 66 for <ar>. The other ones are infrequent enough not to worry about. The <er>, <or> and <ar> spellings often mark an agent noun as in beggar, teacher, doctor . These numbers suggest “When in doubt, choose <er> because it is far and away the most common, especially for agent nouns.”

Another allegedly helpful clue for choosing between <er> and <or> for agent nouns is that <or> is usually used for agents that are considered more important. That has always irked me a little as a teacher. But then I am also a doctor, so I guess it evens out.

I remember a student once suggesting that there is a bit of a negative connotation to agent nouns that end in <ar> as in beggar and liar, but I dont know how far that extends. I cannot find lawyar, nor senatar, nor legislatar in the list of past spellings in the Oxford English Dictionary. Alas.

There just do not seem to be any easy answers that are very helpful. If you really want to dive into the problem, Id suggest going to the website and clicking on CommonWords. Then in the blue menu on the left click on “Correspondences: Sounds to Spellings”, which will take you to the table that lists the 356 sound-to-spelling correspondences in CommonWords. The ones you are interested in are the eight for [u1r] <er, err, ir, irr, or, orr, ur, urr> and the five for [u4r] <ar, er, ir, or, ur>.

One of the nice things about this table is that if you click on the sound-to-spelling correspondence in the left column, you are taken to a user interface page in which all of the words in CommonWords that contain that correspondence are listed at the bottom.

With all of these example words at hand, you can maybe begin to see some patterns that will lead to some useful generalizations. At least I hope so. I would like to learn more useful things to say about this question.”



American English Spelling, D W Cummings

The American Way of Spelling, Venezky

Words wordbook https://laughingogrepress.com/products/words






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Jillian P Jeffries - April 25, 2020

teacher v doctor.
A teacher teaches
A doctor does not doct

A computer computes
A banker banks
An author does not auth
Thing are still weird bc a contractor does kinda contract

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