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What Are R-controlled Vowels?

What are r-controlled vowels? This is an important question in English phonics, which is a method of teaching English spelling and reading with a focus on phonemes, or the individual sounds in a word. It is a tricky concept that applies to North American English but not to most other varieties of English, because North American English is rhotic, meaning that the ‘r’ sounds are pronounced. This is different from, for example, Received Pronunciation British English, where the word ‘car’ would be pronounced like ‘cah’ without a distinct ‘r’ sound at the end of the word.

In North American English, the letter ‘r’ affects word pronunciation in an unusual way. When a vowel is followed immediately by an ‘r’, it makes an r-controlled syllable that changes how the vowel is read and pronounced. To fully understand how this works, it is first important to look at how vowels are pronounced in English when they are not part of an r-controlled vowel syllable. In English, most vowels are either short or long. Short vowels can be thought of as the default pronunciation of any given vowel. Examples of short vowels include:

  • Cat
  • Sell
  • Big
  • Stop
  • Gum

Long vowels, on the other hand, usually occur in words that end in a silent ‘e’. Because English has many exceptions, there are also long vowel words that do not follow this rule, but it can be a helpful way to remember the concept. Examples of long vowels include:

  • Kate
  • Beet
  • Site
  • Home
  • Rule

There are other vowel sounds in English, but for the purposes of r-control, it is only the basic short and long vowels that are of interest. In addition to long and short vowels, there is a third category: r-controlled vowels. These vowels are not considered long or short, regardless of the other phonemes in the word.

Students may benefit from reading and making an r-controlled vowels list

R-controlled syllable words follow various grammatical rules

R-Controlled Vowels Examples

There are hundreds of examples in English of r-controlled syllable words. Before getting into an r-controlled vowels word list, it is important to look specifically at an r-controlled vowels list. ‘R’ does not impact all vowels in the same way. When an ‘e’, an ‘i’, or a ‘u’ precedes an ‘r’, the resulting sound will be /er/. On the other hand, when an ‘a’ or an ‘o’ precedes an ‘r’, the result is often a short or long vowel followed by an ‘r’ sound. There are some exceptions to this rule: there are a few r-controlled vowels examples that feature ‘ar’ or ‘or’, usually in unstressed syllables.

R-controlled Words

In words that only consist of one syllable, some phonics sources refer to ‘r-controlled words’ in addition to r-controlled syllables. This only applies to very short words. This is important to keep in mind, because words with multiple syllables might have some vowels that are r-controlled and others that are not. Generally, the only vowels that are subject to r-control are those that fall immediately before an ‘r’ with no intervening letters.

R-controlled vowels can be challenging to learn and remember. This actually makes sense, because it is extraordinarily uncommon for languages to include this feature: less than one percent of the world’s languages have r-control. North American English is one of the only languages in the world that makes use of r-control. The other notable example of this phenomenon is Mandarin Chinese. Speakers of other languages may find r-control particularly challenging or unintuitive to learn for this reason.

One of the only other languages that has r-controlled words is Mandarin Chinese

R-controlled syllable words exist in Chinese

R-controlled Word List

There are many examples of r-controlled words that can trip up those who are learning to spell and read in English, either as a first or second language. A single-syllable r-controlled words list is:

  • Germ
  • Hurl
  • Skirt
  • Burn
  • Girl

Some words have one r-controlled vowel but other vowel sounds that are either long or short. Examples of these words include:

  • Teacher
  • Turning
  • Butter
  • Birdcage
  • Stirring

Words that include ‘ar’ or ‘or’ but are not r-controlled can be a confusing exception to the r-control rule. Examples of such words include:

  • Car
  • More
  • Stare
  • Short
  • Farm
  • Organize

The easiest way to remember when ‘ar’ or ‘or’ sounds become r-controlled is that r-controlled ‘ar’ or ‘or’ syllables are usually unstressed. Stressed syllables allow these two vowels to retain their usual sounds. Examples of r-controlled ‘a’ and ‘o’ syllables include:

  • Doctor
  • Stellar
  • Instructor
  • Grammar

These are just a few examples of each type of word. Students who are learning to identify r-controlled vowels might benefit from reading these words out loud, sorting words into specific categories based on the kinds of vowels they contain, and expanding each list to include other examples of words. Learning to correctly identify and use r-controlled vowels takes practice, but it is an essential part of learning English.

Lesson Summary

R-controlled vowels are an unusual manifestation of English phonemes, or sounds that make up words. Teaching English through the use of common sounds is called phonics; working with r-controlled vowels is a common way to teach phonics to native English speakers and those learning English as a second language. English vowel sounds can be split into three categories: short vowels, long vowels, and r-controlled vowels. Short vowels are the default sound that each vowel makes on its own, while long vowels are usually created by adding a silent ‘e’ to the end of a word.

R-controlled vowels are vowels (except ‘a’ and ‘o’ in most cases) that change to the sound /er/ when followed immediately by an ‘r’. While ‘ar’ and ‘or’ syllables do not always change to become /er/ sounds, they are still considered r-controlled rather than short or long. When ‘ar’ and ‘or’ syllables are unstressed, they become /er/ sounds just like the other vowels do. This is a particularly tricky aspect of English phonics: r-controlled vowels only exist in around one percent of the world’s languages, most notably in North American English and Mandarin Chinese.

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