Trigraphs and Quadgraphs/Tetragraphs

What Are Trigraphs in Phonics?

The definition of a trigraph in phonics is a combination of three letters that represent one sound (phoneme) in a word.  For example, the three-letter combination ‘igh’ in light is a trigraph and so are the letters highlighted in the word board. 

Other letter combinations which act in a similar way to trigraphs are digraphs and quadgraphs.   

The Little Learners video below explains trigraphs and quadgraphs quite clearly, although we noticed a couple of things in the video that aren’t technically correct:

    • In the word cough, ‘ough’ actually represents 2 sounds /o/ and /f/.
    • In the word laugh, ‘augh’ also represents 2 sounds /a/ and /f/ or /ar/ and /f/ depending on the regional accent:

How Many Trigraphs Are There in English?

We’ve included 17 in our list of letter-sound correspondences in English.  However, it’s possible there are a few very rare trigraphs we’ve missed.

We’ve listed examples of words with trigraphs in them below.  Notice that some trigraphs can represent several different sounds.

Trigraph Examples:

The letters between forward slashes / / are used to indicate phonemes in the UK Government’s Letters and Sounds phonics programme.  The green symbols in round brackets are used in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

‘air’:    /air/ (eə) chair, fair, hair, stair

‘are’:   /air/ (eə) bare, care, glare hare         

           /ar/ (ɑ:) are

‘dge’:  /j/ (dʒ) badge, fudge, fridge, porridge

‘ear’:  /ear/ (ɪə) beard, disappear, hear, spear

           /ur/ (ɜ: Br. or ɝ US) Earth, heard, learn, pearl

           /air/ (eə) Bear, pear, tear, wear

           /ar/ (ɑ:) heart, hearth

‘eau’:  /oa/ (əʊ or oʊ) chateau, gateau, plateau

‘eer’:   /ear/ (ɪə) beer, cheer, deer, meerkat

‘eir’:    /air/ (eə) heir, heirloom, their

‘ere’:   /ear/ (ɪə) atmosphere, cashmere, here, sincere

            /ur/ (ɜ: Br. or ɝ US) were 

           /air/ (eə) compere, there, where, premiere

‘ier’:    /ear/ (ɪə) cashier, fierce, pier, tier

‘igh’:   /igh/ (aɪ) bright, high, light, right

‘oar’:   /or/ (ɔ:) boar, board, roar, soar

‘oor’:  /or/ (ɔ:) door, floor, moor

‘ore’:   /or/ (ɔ:) chore, more, store, wore

‘oul’:   /oo/ (ʊ) could, should, would

‘our’:  /or/ (ɔ:) course, four, mourn, your

           /ur/(ɜ: Br. or ɝ US) adjourn, courtesy, glamour, journey

           /ure/ (ʊə) tour, Lourdes

           /Ə/* (Ə) armour, flavour, humour, neighbour

‘tch’:   /ch/ (tʃ) catch, fetch, match, witch

‘ure’:   /ure/ (ʊə) cure, sure, lure, endure

           /Ə/* (Ə) capture, creature, picture, vulture

*/Ə/ represents the schwa sound which is similar to ‘uh’.

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What are Quadgraphs?

The definition of a quadgraph in phonics is a combination of four letters that represent one sound (phoneme) in a word. 

For example, the four-letter combination ‘eigh’ in weight is a quadgraph.  ‘Augh’ is another quadgraph that represents one sound in words such as daughter or caugh

Quadgraphs are described as tetragraphs by some educators, and they are less common than digraphs or trigraphs.  We could only find 4 commonly used ones.

We’ve listed examples of words with quadgraphs in them below.  Like digraphs and trigraphs, some quadgraphs can represent different sounds in different words.  ‘ough’ can represent at least 5 different sounds.

Quadgraph Examples:

The letters between forward slashes / / are used to indicate phonemes in the UK Government’s Letters and Sounds phonics programme.  The green symbols in round brackets are used in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

‘augh’:                  /or/ (ɔ:) caught, daughter, naughty, taught

‘eigh’:                   /ai/ (eɪ) eight, freight, weigh, neighbour

                             /igh/ (aɪ) height, sleight

‘ngue’:                 /ng/ (ŋ) tongue, meringue

‘ough’:                 /or/ (ɔ:) bought, fought, thought

                             /ow/ (aʊ) bough, drought, plough

                             /Ə/* (Ə) Borough, thorough

                             /oa/ (əʊ or oʊ) although, dough, furlough, though

                             /oo/ (uː) through

*/Ə/ represents the schwa sound which is similar to ‘uh’.

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