How to Teach the ai/ay Spelling Rule

How to Teach ai and ay

Play, rain, made, steak…there are so many words with the long A sound!

Two of the most common ways to get this sound when we are spelling are the vowel teams ‘ai’ and ‘ay.’

Now, with all of the different long A sounds, this might seem a bit overwhelming for students, but with systematic and clear instruction, it can actually be fairly simple!

Both “ai” and “ay” say the long A sound.

We use “ai” in the middle of the word (think rain, pail, train, mail) and “ay” at the end of the word (play, stay, day, May).

To help our students remember this rule, we use the key phrase “Play in the Rain.”

Where students might get stuck with the long A sound:


With our ‘ai’ vowel team there are several words that have a Magic E homophone. When we teach this rule to our students, we like to point this out and use it as an opportunity to build up a student’s vocabulary knowledge. Here are some of the common homophones that we will teach:

  • Plain (I’ll usually use the example - “Do you want plain yogurt or strawberry yogurt?”) and Plane (like an airplane!)

  • Mail (when you receive a letter or a package) and Male (a boy or a man)

  • Tail (like on a monkey or a dog) and Tale (a story)

  • Pail (a bucket) or Pale (light in color)

How we teach the ai & ay vowel team patterns -

We always follow the same pattern of instruction.


We always start with our sound drill, if you haven’t hear of the sound drill - check out our blog over here! We cut out each card individually, when students are new to the pattern we use the picture cue. As they progress, we fade away from using the picture cue as a support.


Next, we read our students a list of words that include the target phonogram (sound pattern). Research shows that when students can discover a pattern on their own, it helps with retention. After we read our students the list of words, we then ask them which sound was the same in each word. Our goal is for them identify the long A sound.


Next, we use the letter patterns introduce the students to the target phonogram. At the top of the page you will see the phonogram (in this case “ai” or “ay”) as well as the key phrase and image. We have our students write the phonogram on the handwriting lines provided, repeating “ai says A” (or “ay says A”) three times. The mix of visually seeing the letters, hearing the letters and the sound and writing the letters provides our students with the critical multisensory component.

We also make sure to indicate how many sounds the target phonogram has. “ai and ay” only have one sound, however, other vowel teams (like “oo” and “ou” each have multiple sounds).

Then we ask our students what other ways they can use to make the long A sound. This is important as it teaches them to start making these connections that are imperative for them to learn to read and spell.


Next, we move onto a word reading introduction. We begin with words that are broken down into phonemes so that our student can practice identifying each sound and then blending them together to make a word. We advance through single syllable words onto multisyllable words. We always make sure to ask questions that will help our students solidify their phonology (sound), orthography (visual) and semantics (comprehension) skills.


Then we move onto sentence level reading. Prior to reading aloud, we ask our students to identify words with the target phonogram (sound). We also have students identify words that they are unsure of how to read, as well as words that they are unsure of the meaning. We then have students draw one of the sentences to make sure they are visualizing what they read and not just working through the motions.


After we finish reading sentences, we have students practice building sentences. We give them a fun activity in which they will create a sentence using one of three subjects (in blue), predicates (in red), and adverbial phrases (in green). This is a really fun and engaging way to get our students practicing what they are learning.


Another way we practice with our students is through a word sort. Sometimes we have them cut the words out and sort them visually, based on whether the word contains an “ai” or an “ay.” And sometimes we have them read the words and identify if the sound was an “ai” or an “ay” based on where in the word they are hearing the long A sound.


Before we jump into spelling and writing we have students warm up with a phoneme manipulation task. For example, the first “ai” prompt says “Say aim. Tell me the sounds in aim. Change the /m/ in aim to /l/.” When asked to tell you the sounds in aim, students should have two blocks (one for /A/ and one for /m/) then, when they change the /m/ to /l/ they should swap out the block used originally for the /m/ sound.

Spelling & Sentence Dictation

Finally, we move into spelling practicing the ai and ay spelling pattern. We also make sure our students are practicing previously instructed patterns as well as practicing spelling at the sentence level with both sentences we’ve creates as well as independently generated sentences!

>>>If you’re interested in grabbing our resources instead of creating your own, you can grab them by clicking here!<<<

And, if you’re interested in seeing how we tie this altogether in our Structured & Systematic Literacy Intervention program we’d love to have you join us for our free online training, 7 Steps to Reading Instruction that Works. You can join us by clicking here!

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