Teaching Long Vowels to English Learners

When you teach English as a Second Language it is the standard practice to begin by teaching long vowels. Why? Because English learners have learned the letters A, E, I, O and U when they learned the alphabet. Usually, they are unfamiliar with the short vowel sounds that a native speaker knows.

There are four common rules of forming long vowels in English words:
  • Rule 1. Silent E words have one internal vowel and an "E" at the end of the word. "Tape, rice and stove" are examples of silent E words.
  • Rule 2. Vowel teams also form long vowels. Examples of vowel team words include "train, peas, and fruit".
  • Rule 3. Open syllables have a vowel at the end of the syllable create a long vowel sound. "I, me, and no" demonstrate open syllable words.
  • Rule 4. Long vowels may be formed by preceding two consonants in words such as "find, wild, old, and comb". These need to be memorized.
The anchor chart above helps teach and reinforce the long vowel words by showing a variety of spelling combinations and using essential English words.

 Remember that the idea 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 vowels. Likewise, if they are from a Semitic language like Arabic they are used to writing only consonants for words, no vowels. Many languages throughout the world are taught without vowels.

 When teaching vowels, I begin by identifying the five classic vowels: A, E, I, O, and U. In addition, I teach that Y and W" are sometimes used as vowels. One vowel sound with or without consonant sounds makes one syllable. Vowels determine both the sound and meaning of words in English. 

I usually teach silent E words first. One method to teach silent e words is by drawing a circle around both vowels and then a arrow from the silent e to the interior vowel. This shows the interior vowel speaks or says its name. Another method is to circle the two vowels and draw a line through the silent e, indicating it has no sound. One of the first words to teach is 'name' because it is so common. By using either of these methods, English learners will quickly begin to recognize and read silent e words. In addition, I often contrast short vowel words with their long vowel relatives. (Examples: can + e = cane, pin + e = pine, hop + e = hope, us + e = use)*

Next, I teach the vowel teams in words. One can use the saying, "When two vowels go walking the first does the talking." Since I teach adults, I often say, "The first vowel speaks while the second one listens." Again, visually marking the vowels helps to make this rule clear. Circle 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. I teach A-Vowel teams first, then proceed to E-Vowel teams, and so forth. Some English learners grasp this concept and can apply this rule immediately to all vowel team words without breaking lessons into separate groups. Some vowel teams such as 'ei' in eight or 'ie'  in piece have to be learned because they do not follow present day pronunciation. 

I usually do not teach open syllables initially because I include this when I teach the types of syllables. Nor do I teach long vowels preceding two consonants at this time because they are rare in English. Instead, I teach this rule as we encounter these words.

Although teaching long vowels first is the generally accepted practice in ESL, in some parts of the world the ABCs are taught as sounds. Vowels are taught as short vowel sounds. These English learners pronounce A as short a, and E as short e. In this case, it is better to teach short vowels with closed syllables first.

Students from European languages often have first language interference. These languages pronounce a, e, and i differently because of the English vowel shift.

One final word, I have seen 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. It is always important to observe your students and their learning style. If you teach according to your student's learning mode they will progress faster.

*All ESL teachers should be aware that silent e's are also used after "c and g" to form the soft sounds (face, page), at the end of -CLE syllables (ta-ble, pur-ple), after "u, v and s" because English cannot end with these letters (glue, love, house), and in some archaic spellings (are, done, and come).

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