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How to teach the "ie" sound in phonics

Updated June 13, 2017

Phonics and spelling in English can be very confusing. It seems like every rule has a host of exceptions that make it tough to know when to use the rule and when the word must be memorised. Vowels can be difficult, and the "ie" combination is one of the many culprits. The pair of letters sometimes makes the long /e/ sound as in "piece." They can be pronounced with a long /i/ sound as in "lie." Both vowels might be voiced as in "prettiest." A few words boast an "ie" that sounds like a short /e/ as in "quotient." Phonics rules can help readers learn to decode the many sounds of "ie."

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  1. Teach students to notice the "ie" combination in words. Use a newspaper or other source of text that can be marked. Have the student find and highlight words that have the "ie" combination. Make a list of the "ie" words highlighted for use in later activities.

  2. Have the student sort the "ie" words by the sound made by the letter combination. Put words with "ie" making the long /e/ sound into a group. Group words that have the -ies ending into a category. Put words with "ie" after a /sh/ sound into another group. Subdivide this category into words with "ie" following "c" (efficient) and "ie" following "t" (patient) if you wish. Create one more group for words with both vowels voiced, as in "shaggiest."

  3. Examine the words in each group for patterns. For example, the words ending with "-ies" have a long /e/ sound when a "y" has been changed to "i" for a plural ending. Words that were spelt with an "ie" originally (such as "lie" or "die") have a long /i/ sound. Words that have a "t" or a "c" before the "ie" pair usually have a /sh/ sound and a short /e/ sound instead of the long /e/ sound typically made by "ie." The words with both vowels voiced separate the "i" and the "e" into different syllables. This is usually caused by adding a suffix beginning with an "e" onto a word ending in a "y" that has been changed to an "i."

  4. Assess the student's understanding of the "ie" phonics pattern by using nonsense syllables. Letter clusters such as "iester," "shackies," "extentient" and "nies" can be decoded using the related "ie" phonics rules. The nonsense word "iester" should be pronounced "eester" because "ie" is generally pronounced as a long /e/. The nonsense word "shackies" should be pronounced as "shack-ees" because of the rule about changing "y" to "i" and adding "es." "Extentient" would be pronounced as "ex-ten-shent" because the "ie" combination following a "t" creates a /sh/ sound followed by a short /e/ sound.

  5. Assess the reader's application of the rules about "ie" by allowing the student to read orally from a contrived text containing many different kinds of "ie" words. Note which words are read successfully and which are misread. Plan review activities to reteach concepts that are not yet internalised.

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Things You'll Need

  • Source of many words, such as a book or newspaper
  • Highlighting marker
  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Nonsense syllables demonstrating various spellings with "ie"

About the Author

Sandy Fleming is a writer and educator from Michigan with master's and bachelor's degrees in special education. She has been writing for the Web for more than 10 years and does private tutoring with children and adults. Her areas of expertise include educational and parenting topics as well as how-to articles and informative pieces. Fleming writes for numerous Internet publications and the local newspaper.

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