Teaching English Learners Short Vowels

Did you know that short vowels are more common in English words than long vowels? However, short vowels are often more challenging for multilingual learners because they may be unfamiliar sounds. If an English learner speaks a European language such as Spanish or French, teach short vowels first because of the language interference with long vowels. Introducing one short vowel per week works well for many older English learners. For younger students, a longer period is more appropriate.

If a teacher applies the principle of teaching from the known to the unknown, they would teach short vowels in a nontraditional order. Most English-speaking teachers automatically begin with Short A and proceed alphabetically. However, there are two reasons why Short A should be taught last. 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. In addition, many English learners who come to the U.S. have learned British English and use the British Short A sound. This interferes with learning the American Short A sound.

Try teaching short vowels in the following order: O, I, A, E, and U. This order begins with the most common short vowel sounds and gives English learners time to practice the short A sound. 

When teaching any new sound using visuals is extremely helpful. English learners often connect the sound with a known object 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.

Once the vowel sound has been learned, teaching without visuals often helps students to focus more closely on the letter sounds. Some students are distracted by the pictures. Others use the picture to decode the word rather than the letters.

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 two sounds; A has two sounds. /a/ and /A/, /a/ and /A.
/a/ /a/ /a/ - apple, /A/  /A/ /A/ - April. /a/ and /A/, /a/ and /A.

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

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

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

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

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