How to teach the Bossy R Rule
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What is the Bossy R Rule?

When learning English for the first time, one can often struggle with pronunciation. While learning the definitions of words is the most important aspect of learning a new language, pronouncing those words correctly is also crucial to establishing complete fluency. English vowels can be especially confusing, and amongst the most confusing of those is the bossy R rule.

The “Bossy R”, or R controlled vowel rule describes the way the letter r can influence pronunciation. Bossy R states that vowel syllables with an R at the end will change their vowel sound. Examples include car, sister, fork, which do not have a long or short vowel sound but have an entirely new phonetic sound.

This can make learning the language particularly challenging, no matter how old students are when beginning to learn a new language. Certain rules for pronunciation may even be unfamiliar to those fluent in the English language as well!

One important rule that influences pronunciation is the “Bossy R” rule, also known as the “R-Controlled” syllable, or vowel. We take a look at this tricky vowel sound here.

What is the Bossy R rule

What are the Bossy R Vowel Sounds?

This may seem confusing without an example. Don’t fret! Here are the three “Bossy R” vowel sounds, and examples of words that contain them.

  • CAR
  • FORK

The three “Bossy R” vowel sounds are /ar/, /er/, and /or/. How these sounds representationally appear in different words may be different than these examples, however. For example:

The /er/ as it appears in sister also appears in these words:

Er Word Examples

  • Bird
  • Surf
  • Word
  • Pearl
  • Calendar

So while Bossy R sound remains the same, the spelling and letters used may be different. Within English they may be only 26 letters, btu there are 44 sounds.

Or Sound examples

While the /or/ as it appears in fork also appears in these words: Although as you can see with different spellings

  • Core
  • Four
  • War
  • Door
  • Oar

Ar Word Examples

  • Car
  • Farm
  • Barn
  • Star
  • Calm
  • Balm

In all of these examples, the letter r dictates the overall sound and pronunciations of the word. The “Bossy R” has a prominent impact on the other vowels of the word and “Bossy R” words make up about 10% of single syllable words in the English language.

This means as tricky as the R controlled Rule is, it is still an important phonics rule to learn.

Resources and Worksheets to Teach the Bossy R Rule.

We have a few worksheets and games on the site to help you teach the Bossy R Rules which we will list below, with links. These are FREE to download and use for homes and classrooms

There are bingo sets for both Bossy R and Diphthongs, as well as sets of Worksheets covering the same to download.

There are also some online games as well, if you have the resources for that.

They can be found on Splashlearn here.

How to Teach Bossy R Words

Despite the somewhat confusing rule, there are a handful of tips and tricks we can use to better understand the “Bossy R” rule, and how to remember to pronounce it correctly when these words arise in conversation.

Begin with /ar/

  • The best starting point for grasping the “Bossy R” rule is typically the /ar/ syllable. The reason for this is because it is the most common “Bossy R” syllable in the English language, it also has fewer spellings which makes it easier to teach.
  • Another reason that /ar/ is usually the easiest place for students to start is because it is usually the one that makes the most “sense” from a beginner’s perspective. The A-R in car for example sounds like /ar/, so the distinction is a simpler one to grasp for most students.
  • When teaching /ar/, comparing the syllable to other syllables with the letter a in them can illuminate the differences between “Bossy R” syllables and other syllables. For example, the words cat, cast, and cab all feature the letter a, but do not feature a “Bossy R” syllable.
  • Comparing these words to the word car can help to distinguish the differences in the pronunciation of the syllables.
  • Lastly, using rhyming words that all contain the /ar/ syllable can help to establish a pattern between these words. The words car, bar, and star, all contain the “Bossy R” /ar/ syllable, and all rhyme, which can assist in teaching the pronunciation of this syllable.

Follow up with /er/

After grasping /ar/, the next step is to learn the /er/ syllable. Unlike /ar/, the /er/ syllable can be represented in many different ways within the English language. As mentioned earlier, the /er/ syllable can appear as bird, surf, and her among many others.

  • The best way to introduce this syllable is through the /er/ representation, as found in the word her. This will allow students to grasp the simplest representation first before moving on to some of the more challenging ones.
  • Along with the word her, rhyming words such as farmer, serve, sherbet, can help to establish a pattern of pronunciation, which we’ve previously mentioned.
  • Additionally, teaching the /ur/ representation will be much easier after the student has grasped the /er/ representation. Words like curl, church, and nurse are all examples of /ur/ representations of the /er/ “Bossy R” syllable.
  • Lastly, the /ir/ representation of the /er/ “Bossy R” syllable is the next one that needs to be taught. This representation can be found in words such as third, bird, and dirt, for example.
  • Try pairing rhyming words to further accentuate the similarities in pronunciation between words than contain the /ir/ representation of the /er/ syllable.

Finish with /or/

It’s often recommended to teach the /or/ “Bossy R” syllable last, because it is often the syllable that some students tend to struggle with the most. Like the /er/ syllable, the /or/ syllable has different representations within the English language. The /or/ syllable can also function as an /er/ syllable, as in the word doctor.

Because of this, teaching the /or/ syllable as it sounds in words such as fork is typically the best way to introduce the syllable to students. This allows them to grasp the /or/ syllable easily without being confused by other variations of the syllable.

After the students have grasped the /or/ syllable as it appears, they can move on to other representations of the syllable, such as /oor/ (as in door), /ar/ (as in war), and /ou/ (as in four).

What is the Bossy R rule


Teaching students the “Bossy R” rule is crucial in establishing proper pronunciation for a wide variety of common words in the English language.

We have included resources we have on the site throughout the article as well as a list above to help teach and consolidate the R controlled vowel rules. Hopefully these are helpful to you in your homes and classrooms.

By following these steps, students should be able to grasp the “Bossy R” rule as it appears in multiple different types of syllables and representations.

I have been a teacher of English for over 15 years, in that time i made hundreds and thousands of resources and learnt so much i think its worth sharing. Hopefully to help teachers and parents around the world.

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