What are Vowels?
Today we will be starting your child’s journey towards English fluency with an understanding of English’s five vowels. In English, letters are split into two categories: vowels and consonants. Consonants are letters where the sound’s airflow is restricted in some way by your throat, mouth, teeth, tongue, lips, etc.
Vowels are the opposite. They are letters where the sound is made from unrestricted airflow. In English, our five vowels are “A”, “E”, “I”, “O”, and “U” (sometimes the letter “Y” is also considered a vowel, but this will come later). All other letters in English are consonants. This guide should help you teach your child homeschool phonics and give your child an understanding of how to pronounce English vowels.
If you need any more phonics help, check out our Vowels and Consonants Home Page for lessons, flashcards, and articles.
Short Vowels and Long Vowels
As we learned earlier, there are five vowels in English. Each vowel has two sounds: a short vowel sound and a long vowel sound. This lesson will teach us the short vowel sounds. If you are interested in long vowel sounds, you can start with our lesson on Long A vowel sounds. Remember, to indicate the short vowel sound we will be putting the vowels between forward slashes like this: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/.
Confusion Among Short Vowel Sounds
Short vowel sounds are incredibly important for English pronunciation. Many ESL students have a very hard time with them for two reasons:
- They are similar, but not the same as vowel sounds in their native language.
- Because vowel sounds are mostly unrestricted, the sounds are much more similar to each other than a lot of the consonants are.
For these reasons, many ESL learners have issues with learning how to pronounce English vowels. Oftentimes, they will confuse them for each other, or even use the same sound for different, but similar phonemes. Take your time with vowel phonics, and have a native speaker check their progress often to make sure that your child can make this sound correctly and can recognize it when it is said.
Vowel Height and Vowel Backness
Since we do not use our mouths or throat to obstruct a sound in vowels, how do we make different vowel sounds? To make different vowel sounds, we can change the vowel height and the vowel backness. Vowel height is how high your tongue is in your mouth. Vowels like short /a/ have your tongue low in your mouth and make what is called an open vowel. Vowels like /u/ have your tongue raised in your mouth to make a closed vowel.
Vowel backness refers to moving your tongue forward or backward in your mouth when forming vowel sounds. Vowels like /i/ are front vowel sounds where your tongue is forward in your mouth. Vowels like /u/ are back vowel sounds because your tongue is pulled back.
If you would like to look into this more, this article at mimicmethod.com, goes into this concept in more depth. They include some great diagrams to help you understand these ideas.
Another great resource is here on Wikipedia. This picture charts all of the vowel sounds by their vowel height and vowel backness. It also includes audio recordings. It uses IPA symbols to tell you which vowel sound is which, I have included the IPA symbols under each heading in this guide if you want to look one up on this Wikipedia chart.
We here at the Learner’s Nook have also made a chart to make this a little easier. This is a simplified chart that shows you where your tongue should be in your mouth for the five short vowels.
How to Pronounce the Short /a/ Sound
This lesson will be on short /a/ (a as in apple), and not long a (a as in lake). The short /a/ sound is formed with your tongue low (an open vowel) and in the front of your mouth (a front vowel). When you make the sound your mouth is open and should almost look like you are smiling.
The IPA symbol for short /a/ is æ.
Common words with /a/:
How to Pronounce the Short /e/ Sound
“E” is our second vowel. Many ESL students struggle to hear the difference between the /a/ sound and the /e/ sound, so make sure to practice this a lot. like /a/, /e/ is a front vowel so your tongue should be towards the front of your mouth. The difference is in the vowel height, your tongue should be about halfway up your mouth in the front position. This higher position will force your mouth to close more, so you should see your mouth narrow compared to /a/.
The IPA symbol for short /e/ is e.
Common words with /e/:
How to Pronounce the Short /i/ Sound
The letter “I” is our third vowel, and one of the trickiest vowels for a lot of ESL students. I have heard many learners mistakenly pronounce /i/ as a long /ē/. This makes words like “pig” sound like “peeg”.
The short /i/ sound is also very similar to the short /e/ sound, so please make sure you are making all of these sounds correctly. Like /a/ and /e/, /i/ is a front vowel sound. In vowel height, /i/ is even higher than /e/, it is almost at the top of your mouth.
Teacher’s Tip: Be careful, if you tongue is too high in your mouth, you will make the long /ē/ sound (ee as in see), this is not correct.
The IPA symbol for short /i/ is I.
Common words with /i/:
How to Pronounce the Short /o/ Sound
The letter “O” is our fourth vowel, and usually the easiest vowel for most children to learn. The short /o/ sound is the same sound a dentist or doctor might ask us to make when they look inside our mouths, it is a deep /awe/ sound. The /o/ sound is a back vowel sound, so you want your tongue pulled back in your mouth. It is also an open vowel sound, so your tongue should be at the very bottom of your mouth.
The IPA symbol for short /o/ is ɒ.
Common Words with /o/:
How to Pronounce the Short /u/ Sound
The letter “U” is our final vowel. Like /o/, it is a back vowel sound so your tongue should be drawn back into your mouth. But unlike /o/, /u/ is a closed vowel sound, and your tongue should be located high up in your mouth. Be careful though that it is not too high, it should not be touching the roof of your mouth. If it is done correctly, it should make a deep /uh/ sound.
The IPA symbol for short /u/ is ʌ.
Common words with /u/:
Other Vowels and Consonants Phonics Lessons That You Might Like
How to Teach Your Child
- Print out our flashcards or make your own. You want to make sure the flashcard has the letter on one side and a picture on the other for your child to associate with the sound.
- Teach the name of the letter and the sound that that letter makes to your child. If you do not feel confident in making the sound correctly yourself, you can use the videos we have provided for you.
- Teach your child the word that is associated with this letter ( A is for apple, /a/ /a/ apple). If possible, have them draw the word it is associated with.
- If your child is old enough, teach them how to write the letter (both the small and big version). Make sure to emphasize the name and sound the letter makes while your child is writing.
- Verify with a teacher or native English speaker that your child is making the sound correctly
After Your Child Has Learned This Sound
Once you know your child is making the sounds correctly, you should look to practice these phonics as much as possible, every day. Short vowels are incredibly important, and getting this right now will help your child in the future. Remember that the more one-on-one practice time you can give your children, the better they will be in their English studies. It also does not need to be textbooks and flashcards memorization, here is a list of fun activities you can do to practice with your children. No one knows your child better than you, make English time more fun by pairing it with activities they like to do. Anything from coloring, reading, or more active games will be helpful if they are practicing and thinking about the sounds and letters of short vowels.
Practicing should continue for a while, but when you want to teach something new, you can begin to look at some of our consonant pairs which can be found at the links above. As well, you can check their progress on their short vowels with some of our assessment quizzes in our Member’s Section.
I Have More Questions
If you have any more questions about pronouncing the short vowels, practicing these sounds, or where to go from here, we have a couple of resources for you here at The Learner’s Nook.
- Here is a glossary of terms we use in these guides which may help clear up some confusion for those doing homeschool phonics.
- Here is a diagram of a mouth with labels if you do not understand which part of the mouth should be moving.
- Here you can see a general overview of how to teach phonics to your ESL children which may be what you are looking for.
- Join our members club to book some time with us to ask us your questions.