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This article describes the kinetics of reactions that result in substrate consumption during formation of ultrathin transition metal oxides on silicon. Yttrium silicate films (∼40 Å) with an equivalent silicon dioxide thickness of ∼11 Å are demonstrated by physical vapor deposition (PVD) routes. Interface reactions that occur during deposition and during postdeposition treatment are observed and compared for PVD and chemical vapor deposition (CVD) yttrium oxides and CVD aluminum-oxide systems. Silicon diffusion, metal-silicon bond formation, and reactions involving hydroxides are proposed as critical processes in interface layer formation. For PVD of yttrium silicate, oxidation is thermally activated with an effective barrier of 0.3 eV, consistent with the oxidation of silicide being the rate-limited step. For CVD aluminum oxide, interface oxidation is consistent with a process limited by silicon diffusion into the deposited oxide layer. © 2002 American Institute of Physics.