Teaching English Learners Short Vowels

Short vowels are more common in English than long vowels. However, short vowels are often more challenging for English learners because they are  unfamiliar with these sounds. If a student speaks a European language such as Spanish or French, I recommend beginning by teaching short vowels before long vowels because of the first language interference. Introducing one short vowel per week works well for older English learners. For younger students, a longer period may be more appropriate.

If a teacher applies the principle of teaching from what is known to what is unknown, they would teach short vowels in a nontraditional order. Most English language teachers automatically begin with Short A and proceed alphabetically. However, there are two reasons why Short A be taught last. First the American Short A sound is an uncommon sound among world languages. It is often difficult to hear and learn, so many English learners struggle to produce this odd sound. Secondly, many students who come to the U.S. have learned British English and use the British Short A. This interferes with learning the American Short A sound.
I would recommend the opposite order for teaching short vowels. Begin with Short U and end with Short A. Short U is a very common sound for native English speakers. They use it when they think, "Um," and when they are disgusted, "Ugh!".

When teaching any new sound using visuals is extremely helpful. English learners often connect the sound with the object shown and this aids the learning process. Pictures combined with essential English words relevant to the students' lives, is a highly effective method of teaching all sounds. Vowels are more challenging because very few essential English words begin with vowels.

Singing as another mode of teaching vowel sounds. The lyrics below are sung to the tune of  'Frere Jacques / Brother John'. This song is common in many countries.

A has three sounds; A has two sounds. /a/, /A/, /ah/. /a/, /A/, /ah/.
/a/ - apple, /A/ - April, /ah/ - all. /A/, /ah/, /a/, /A/, /ah/.

E has two sounds; E has two sounds. /e/ and /E/. /e/ and /E/.
/e/ -  exercise. /E/ - eleven. /e/ and /E/. /e/ and /E/.

I has two sounds; I has two sounds. /i/ and /I/. /i/ and /I/. 
/i/ - inch. /I/ - ice,  /i/ and /I/. /i/ and /I/. 

O has two sounds; O has two sounds. /o/ and /O/. /o/ and /O/. 
/o/ - on/off. /O/ - open. /o/ and /O/. /o/ and /O/. 

U has two sounds; U has two sounds. /u/ and /U/. /u/ and /U/.  
/u/ - up. /U/ - uniform.  /u/ and /U/. /u/ and /U/.  

As soon as students grasp short vowels, begin teaching words with closed syllables which contain a short vowels. 


1 comment


  • Madeline Wood

    I found this helpful information. I am a 30 year experienced primary and intermediate teacher working with two Hispanic adults and was glad to read your suggestion for teaching vowels.


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