How to teach when to use AI and AY (instead of A, A-E, EI, or EA)?

Let’s look at the below set of words:

  • plain
  • plane
  • pay
  • steak
  • snake

The above words all make the long sound of ‘a’ /ā but are written with different spelling patterns.

Teaching a child to use the correct spelling pattern when you have multiple spelling pattern choices that can be used to spell the same sounds can be challenging.

I have spent hours sifting through blogs and educator forums, searching for ways to differentiate between spellings of homophones, and looking for rules to teach my students that they can quickly apply and make the correct spelling choices. While rules and tips exist that can teach children most spelling rules (example: when to use spelling patterns ck or k or when to double f, l, s, and z at the end of words) I could not find an easy fix to teach my students who often got their ai, ay, and a-e mixed up.

One child that I work with bonded with me over the elaborate stories with wacky characters that I made up for her. Being on the spectrum, she loved talking about these characters and imagining them as part of our sessions. She looked forward to our sessions where we would make up silly characters and use stories about them to remember our ever-increasing list of spelling rules. She found spelling patterns and rules hard to remember but never forgot about the delicate princesses, brave dwarves, wicked witches, and silly animals that we created together. When she progressed to writing vowel team spellings, she struggled to remember spelling patterns like most other children do. We persisted in practice, practice, and more practice for a few weeks before I resorted to making up a story for her that included only the focus words with the spelling pattern that we were working on including some of the characters she loved.

The first vowel team story I created for her (Train Trip To The Bay), the focus was on the long sound of a /ā/ spelled with ai and ay. The story covered 83 focus words spelled with ai or ay and did not include any of the other homophones or words with the same /ā/ sound. We then read and reread the story over four weeks and played games like bingo and snake and ladder using those focus words. I found that she was getting better at spelling those focus words as she associated the words with the story. Every time we had to spell one of those focus words, she would cheerfully tell me, “Zahra, this is from the Fay book, so that’s how I know to spell this with an ai and not a-e.” We made similar stories for every vowel team that I introduced her to, and we have had no trouble remembering spellings for words with similar sounds such as er/ir/ur, oa/oe/ow/o-e, ai/ay/a-e/ea/ei, etc.

I have since used the same stories to teach other students of mine and have found it both engaging and an easy way for students to remember words from their otherwise confusing spelling lists.

How does this work?

The books in the Vowel Team Series have been developed to help children with orthographic mapping of focus words. Every book in this vowel team series will focus on one or two related vowel teams and will include multiple words that children of school age will potentially come across during reading and spelling. The intention is for children to associate these focus words with the story and subsequently become fluent in encoding and decoding those words.

The book is accompanied by resources such as flash cards and board games that can be used in conjunction with this book to aid in the orthographic mapping of these words.

Literacy instruction needs to be explicit and systematic, so each book includes what phonemes, graphemes, rules, affixes, and spelling patterns need to be taught explicitly to the child before they are expected to read the book. Please note that unless all prerequisites have been explicitly taught and the student can read this book independently, it is recommended that you read with or read to the child.

Teach a child with an engaging story that focusses on 98 target words with ONLY EE spelling pattern.

Train Trip To The Bay

Book 1

Train Trip To The Bay is the story of Fay, a young girl who takes the train to visit her friend, Den the Donkey, for a picnic at the bay. She has a few escapades on her way, but she reaches there safe and has a great day with her friend.

Vowel Focus Words: /ā/ – ai & ay

Decodable resource that can help students in the orthographic mapping of words that are spelled with the below spelling patterns.

This book aims to address how to teach a child when to use ai & ay rather than ‘a consonant e’ (a-e) when spelling words or how to differentiate between homophones while spelling, e.g., plain vs. plane?

ai and ay

No of focus target words covered in the story


This book utilizes 83 focus words that use ONLY the ai and ay spellings to tell a simple but engaging story that will captivate young minds.

Focus Words represent 

 long sound of a /ā/

The book also comes with a free pack of educator resources which can be used in conjunction with the storyline to aid in the orthographic mapping of these words. The resource includes:

  • 2 sets of printable flashcards of all focus words
  • => A4 (classroom size)
  • => A7 (homeschool size)
  • 4 sets of board games
  • => Bingo
  • => Snake & ladder
  • => Race to the top
  • => 4 in a row

The intention is for children to become familiar with these focus words in a fun and engaging manner thereby associating the focus words with the storyline and subsequently becoming fluent in encoding and decoding those words.