Teaching Long Vowel Patterns

When teaching English as a New Language, it is standard practice to begin by teaching long vowel words, whereas native English speakers begin with short vowel words. Why? Because multilingual learners have learned the vowel names/sounds A, E, I, O, and U from learning the alphabet. Usually, they are unfamiliar with short vowel sounds that native English speakers know. The anchor chart set above teaches and reinforces the long vowel patterns with  essential English words.

There are four common patterns for forming long vowel words in English:
  • Silent E words have one internal long vowel that says its name, followed by a consonant, and a Silent "E" at the end of the word. "Tape, rice, stove, and cube" are examples of Silent E words. Some programs called these Magic E or Bossy E words.
  • Vowel Teams also form long vowel words. Examples of vowel team words include "train, peas, light, boat, and fruit".
  • Long Vowel plus Two Consonants words such as "find, child, old, and most". 
  • Open Syllables have a vowel at the end of an open syllable which creates a long vowel sound. "I, me, by, and go" are open syllable words.

Remember that the concept of a vowel may be totally foreign to non-native English speakers. If the student is from a glyph language like Chinese, they do not write consonants or vowels. Likewise, if they are from a Semitic language like Arabic or Hebrew, they write words with consonants only, leaving out the vowels. Many languages throughout the world are taught without vowels. This is important because vowels are integral to English pronunciation, spelling, and reading.

When teaching vowels, begin by identifying the five classic vowels: A, E, I, O, and U. In addition, teach that "Y and W" sometimes function as vowels. Both "i" and "y" are used to form long i words. One vowel sound or beat makes one syllable. Every syllable in English must have a vowel sound. Vowels and letter patterns determine both the sound and meaning of words in English. 

Silent E.  Start with the Silent E pattern first. This pattern is also called Bossy E or Magic E. The internal vowel is long (says its name) and the final e is silent.

One method for teaching Silent E words is to draw a circle around (or underline) both vowels and then draw an arrow from the silent e to the interior vowel. This demonstrates that the final e makes the interior vowel say its name. Another method is to circle (or underline) the two vowels and draw a line through the silent e, indicating it has no sound. Either method is very effective.

If students have previously learned short vowel words, it is good to  contrast  these words with their long vowel relatives. 

can + e = cane

pet + e = Pete

pin + e = pine

hop + e = hope

us + e = use

Two of the first words to teach is "name" and "date" because these are used almost every day in school. By using these methods, English learners will quickly learn to recognize and read silent e words. 

All multilingual teachers should be aware that Silent E performs several functions for a variety of reasons.

    • After "c" - face, rice, price
    • After "g" - page, bridge, change
    • -CLE Syllables - table, circle, purple
    • After "v" - love, give, have
    • After "i and u"  - pie, tie, glue , clue
    • After "z" - freeze, sneeze
    • After "s " (not plural) - house, rise, nurse
    • Archaic spellings (are, done, and come)

Vowel Teams. Next, teach vowel teams words. One can use the saying, "When two vowels go walking the first does the talking" or "The first vowel speaks while the second one listens."

A Vowel Teams - ai, ay, ei, ey, eigh, ea

E Vowel Teams - ea, ee, ey, ei, ie

I Vowel Teams - igh, ie, ye

O Vowel Teams - oa, ow, oe

U Vowel Teams - oo, ew, ou, ui, ue, eu

Visually marking the vowels helps to make this rule clear. Circle (or underline) both vowels to identify them and draw an arrow from the second vowel to the first indicating saying its name, or draw a line through the second one showing it is silent.

Vowel teams can be taught in any order, but focus on one long vowel group until it is learned. Some multilingual learners grasp this concept quickly and can apply this rule immediately to all vowel team words.

Irregular Vowel Teams. Regular vowel teams always begin with the long vowel, However, many of the most high-frequency words contain irregular vowel teams which have retained their historic spelling. They do not follow not follow the classic pattern and do not represent today's pronunciation. These words should be taught after the regular vowel teams. 

A Vowel Teams - ei, ey, eigh, ea

E Vowel Teams - ie

I Vowel Teams -  ye

U Vowel Teams - oo, ew, ou, eu

Long Vowel + Two Consonants. Many high-frequency words are formed with a  long vowel followed by two consonants. The majority of these are long i and long o words and can be taught in groups. Others can be taught when they are encountered. The formation of a long vowel in this way is an old English rule.

Long i + 2 Consonants - child, find, sign, climb

Long o + 2 Consonants - old, most, roll, told, both

Long u + 2 Consonants - truth

Open SyllablesMost teachers introduce open syllables when they teach the types of syllables.  Many beginning words have open syllables that are helpful for teaching.

Open Syllable A - ta-ble, A-pril, ba-by, pa-per

Open Syllable E - be, he, we, she, be-tween, de-cide, re-read

Open Syllable I - I,  by, my, fly, cry, Fri-day, qui-et, spi-der, wi-fi

Open Syllable O - no, go, o-ver, o-pen, hel-lo

Open Syllable U - u-nit, u-nite, u-ni-form

Exception. Although teaching long vowels first is the generally accepted practice in ESL, in some parts of the world the ABCs are taught as sounds. In this instance, vowels names are their short vowel sounds. These multilingual learners call the letter A= /a/, and the letter E= /e/. In this case, it is better to begin with short vowels with closed syllables first.

Students from European languages often have first language interference. These language groups pronounce "a, e, and i" differently because of the Great English Vowel Shift. Sometimes it is easier to teach short vowels first to avoid this first language interference.

One final word, many multilingual English learners learn to read without learning any vowels at all. They learn by reading whole words and then begin to generalize rules from their observations. These students often have extensive linguistic knowledge and need English word patterns to be reviewed rather than taught. It is always important to observe your students and their learning style. If you teach according to your student's learning style they will progress faster.

    1 comment

    • Ricardo

      English is actually two languages, English and French/Latin. In the old unabridged dictionaries in one page one could find some 30% of French words, which in the end are the main problem for non-native learners, as they were adopted into English but with various pronunciations these words may not have had in the original language. After three decades of living in the United States, even though English is my first language now I still mispronounce, particularly vowels.

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