Has a student ever asked you before about the letter combination “qu” and specifically how to identify it? If so, what was your first gut reaction to the question? Was it to say that “qu” is a blend? Or did you immediately gravitate towards digraph?
Qu can be both a digraph and a blend in Phonetic English. When used as a blend it has both the /k/ and /w/ sounds blended like in the words quick, quake or quiet. As a digraph it functions as one sound /k/ often from words derived from the French language like unique or antique.
Both outcomes are understandable, and the question has been the subject of much confusion and discussion among English teachers everywhere. In today’s article, we’ll endeavor to answer this question once and for all.
Here’s the bad news, it’s impossible to say 100-percent. The prevailing opinion among teachers seems to be that “qu” is in fact an example of a digraph, representing the sound /kw/ in many words, but also /k/ in other words, especially those of French origin.
We’ve listed some examples below. One of the reasons some contend that “qu” is a blend is that the /kw/ sound is not a single sound, but rather two different sounds occurring right next to each other, namely the /k/ and then then /w/.
Strictly speaking, a digraph should only represent a single sound, such as “sh” or “ch.” These words combine into a single, seamless sound with no apparent break or boundary. Those who say “qu” is a blend, therefore, say that the term has a distinct break between the /k/ and /w/ parts, indiscernible to some as it may be when spoken quickly.
This being the case, there are those who would therefore argue that “qu” is only a digraph when used in words of French origin to make the /k/ pronunciation, but not when used to make the /kw/ pronunciation.
On the surface, there’s clearly some crossover between these two concepts, so let’s clear up what exactly we mean by each one. It’s true that blends and digraphs share some characteristics, but their differences are more important.
They are both examples in English phonics where a number of letters come together to form a distinct pronunciation, and may occur at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of words:
Common blends include:
- br — bread, brilliant, broken
- sw — swing, swig, swollen
- sk — risk, task, mask
- …and many more
Some blends are unique to the end of words:
- nd — end, bend, send
- lk — milk, silk, ilk
- …and many more
The main difference between blends and digraphs is the number of distinct sounds that are made when reading or speaking these combinations. Blends produce more than one sound, and digraphs produce a single sound.
Common digraphs include:
- sh — ship, sheet, shoulder
- ch — chip, cheat, charge
- wh — whip, what, where
- oa — road, toad, load
- ee — beet, seed, teeth
- …and many more in both consonant and vowel form
As you can see from reading these pairs of letters, they only produce a single sound. Some more rarely used digraphs include those with silent letters such as “kn” and “gn” — knife, knight, gnu, gnashers, etc. — where there are two clearly different letters but only one sound.
When you study the letters “qu” and how we usually pronounce it, you start to understand why it is that people struggle to agree on its appropriate label: blend, or digraph? On the one hand, the /kw/ pronunciation does seem to have a boundary between two separate sounds, namely the /k/ and /w/, but this is hardly noticeable at all when the word is pronounced naturally and at speed.
On the other hand, “qu” also has a distinct single-sound pronunciation, the /k/ sound that it makes when part of words of French origin. In this case, we can argue quite reasonably that “qu” fits neatly into the digraph column, but with divisions remaining, it’s hard to create a truly definitive answer.
Indeed, there are examples of vowel digraphs, too, which stop being digraphs and become blends when they are placed within certain words. The vowel digraph “oe” for instance, which makes a single sound when used in the word “toe,” suddenly finds itself demarcated differently when it’s placed in the word “poetry.”
So, if this apparent boundary between the ‘o’ and the ‘e’ means that it moves from the digraph camp to the blend camp, then shouldn’t we say the same for “qu” when it is used for the /kw/ pronunciation?
The most important thing, of course, is to teach students the two main different ways in which “qu” is used and pronounced. This knowledge is important for their reading and pronunciation, especially when it comes to distinguishing between different uses of “qu” that occur within the same paragraph, or even the same sentence.
Try to get your head around this (slightly contrived) one, for instance:
“The Queen’s unique outlook on life was once described in the magazine Country Squire as being ‘quintessentially British.’ They say it’s ‘an existence fueled entirely by baroque music in the day, followed by hard liquor in the evening, and all while wearing turquoise hats garnished with bouquets of flowers.’”
As for labeling it a digraph or a blend, we say that the best method is to teach students about the debate itself, including the points we’ve raised in this blog.
The fact is that “qu” is just one of those that’s difficult to put into a single category, much like the many contronyms that so baffle learners of English as a second language. It’s an interesting quirk that provides much food for thought.
Digraph and blend teaching resources
We have hundreds of pages of free resources on the site that cover both blends and digraphs and you can check out some and some teaching advice on the links in the list below.
- FREE Digraph Worksheets
- What are digraphs in English.
- 60 blends and digraphs worksheets
- Free Consonant Blend worksheets
- Blends word search
So, we say highlight the different uses, and draw students’ attention to its characteristics as a digraph, and those of a blend. Ultimately it works as a kind of bridge between the two concepts and as a great example of some of those strange things about English that students invariably ask us about as the lesson is about to end!