Vowel Diphthong ou & ow: the OUCH in Words

Vowel Diphthong ou & ow: the OUCH in Words Cathy Collier

Vowel diphthongs, specifically ou and ow, can be tricky for early learners. BUT, breaking down words into phonemes and focusing on the diphthong can prove meaningful.

Our guide for this adventure is the mentor text, “Cowboy Sam and those Confounded Secrets.” So, let’s “mosey on down” in and explore the ins and outs of these tricky vowel combinations.

My favorite classroom theme was owls (as I’m sure you know). Back in 2012, my students wanted to write about owls all the time. At that time, the vowel diphthongs “ou” and “ow” were not on our pacing guide, but any good teacher knows you jump on a lesson when they show an interest it.

Vowel Diphthong ou & ow: the OUCH in Words Cathy Collier

I made the quickest anchor chart. I made an owl and a house.

I wrote both words on them and underlined the ow and ou in each word.

We talked about how the /ow/ in words was typically an “ou” or an “ow.”

Whenever we are interactively writing, we referenced the owl and the house.

Then, later in small group, I talked about the “ou” and “ow” and made this small chart. I also used this when discussing the difference between “are” and “our.”

Depending on where you live, students might write the sentence, “I went to are car.” We talk about how we should say it and how we definitely should write it.

Vowel Diphthong ou and ow Generalizations

Research from Orton-Gillingham emphasizes the importance of introducing generalizations rather than rigid rules. For ou and ow, some key generalizations include:

OU Generalization

  • Usually found in the middle of a word.
  • Often follows a single consonant or a short vowel sound.
  • Exception: foul (bad)

OW Generalization

  • Frequently occurs at the end of a word or syllable. (cow, chow/der, cow/ard)
  • If a single l, n, el, or er follows the sound, it should be spelled “ow”.
  • Exception: crowd
Vowel Diphthong ou & ow: the OUCH in Words Cathy Collier

These generalizations serve as guiding principles, allowing students to develop a deeper understanding of the patterns rather than memorizing arbitrary rules.

Vowel Diphthong ou and ow with Cowboy Sam

Whole group lessons are better when we attach them to a mentor text. “Cowboy Sam and those Confounded Secrets” is a great text for finding “ou” and “ow.” What a cute book.

Cowboy Sam is written with the cutest “cowboy accent” and in the time of cowboy towns. Cowboy Sam listens to everyone’s secrets and puts them in his hat. One day, there are too many secrets and the hat won’t stay on his head. The townspeople try ideas for fixing the hat, but it won’t hold the secrets anymore. Finally, Cowboy Sam decides to keep their secrets in his heart.

Vowel Diphthong ou & ow: the OUCH in Words Cathy Collier

There are 10 words in the book with the vowel diphthong  ou and ow (cowboy, confounded, town, hound, down, brow, bounce, powder, crowd, and found).

There are 6 words that do not follow the diphthong pattern (tough, poured, coughed, brought, could and wouldn’t).

Hands-On and Multi-Sensory Roundup Let’s explore hands-on, interactive, and multi-sensory techniques to ensure our students grasp these vowel patterns with precision.

Using the words, set up a sort with the “bandage” headers (vowel diphthong and not). I introduce the vowel diphthong by telling the students the ou and ow sound like they’ve been hurt. OW! I say it and grab my knee.

I have a picture of a boy who has hurt his knee and I tell them, when the letters ou and ow are together in a word, they can sound like OW! I tell them we are going to listen to words from Cowboy Sam and I want them to listen for the OW! in the word.

If they hear the OW!, we will put the word in the column with the bandage that reads “Vowel Diphthong” and if we don’t, it will go in the “not” column.

Step 1 – Read each word from the story in random order, and help the students listen for the OW! vowel diphthong. As they hear the word, put it in the pocket chart or in the sort.

Step 2 – Reread the words and put the bandage under the “ou” or “ow” in the word. Students can use printed bandages, or actual mini-bandages affixed under the letters.

Vowel Diphthong ou and ow Interactive Anchor Chart

Vowel Diphthong ou & ow: the OUCH in Words Cathy Collier

When making an anchor chart, always include your students. When they are included in making the chart, they have great buy-in.

(For more ideas about Anchor Charts, check out the link.)

For the anchor chart, you’ll need a

  • poster board,
  • pictures,
  • title
  • headers
  • bandages, and
  • markers.


  1. Purchase bandages. These brightly colored bandages are from Dollar Tree®.
  2. Write ”ou” or “ow” on middle gauze part of the bandages.
  3. Pass out ”ou” and “ow” pictures. Ask students to label the picture on a scrap piece of paper. Once the words are checked, they should write the missing letters on the bandage with marker.
  4. Affix the bandage to the front of the picture.
  5. Affix the pictures to the poster.

Vowel Diphthong ou and ow Center Exploration

It is critical that students always have the ability to practice independently skills taught in whole group. Centers should be a direct reflection of whole group instruction and practice.

Word Sorting Center: Have students categorize words into ou and ow groups.

Word Building Center: Students should be given picture cards and letter tiles to create the words. Letter tiles can be handmade squares with the “ou” and “ow” on one tile. Students should practice these letters being a set.

Vowel Diphthong ou & ow: the OUCH in Words Cathy Collier

Phoneme Dot Practice: Students are given picture cards and are asked to dot the phonemes, then write the corresponding letters.

Write the Room: Picture cards can be displayed around the room. As students find the card, they write the corresponding word on the recording sheet. They can color and highlight the “ou” and “ow” patterns it the word.

Vowel Diphthong ou and ow Set

Vowel Diphthong ou & ow: the OUCH in Words Cathy Collier

I created this set to give you everything you need for “ou” and “ow” lessons.

The set is available on TPT. The set has 5 lessons: Anchor Charts, Cards for labeling, Cards for Sorting, Worksheets, and a Write the Room Center. The set has 98 cards and 6 Worksheets.

It also has everything you need for an anchor chart, except REAL bandages (but you do get printable ones).

If you’d like a free sample of the set and Cowboy Sam Vocabulary cards, make sure to fill out the form below.

Check out the set with the link. If you’d like a small sample, fill out the form below.

You will get the sample in your inbox. This will set you up in my email newsletter, but you can unsubscribe at any time.

Cathy Collier

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