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What Are Vowel Sounds?

You'd be surprised how many children, and adults too, you can stump when you ask the seemingly simple question, "What are the vowel sounds?" Many confuse the question with "What are the vowel letters so you'll get some variant of "a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y" from them, but when it comes to trying to describe what a vowel sound is, you'll get a real mishmash of answers. Few of my young clients, and not many of their parents either, actually knew what the main difference is between vowel sounds and consonant sounds.

What is a Vowel Sound?

Here's an effective way to teach a child what a vowel sound is.

Tell your child that vowel sounds give words their volume and then ask if he knows what you mean by volume on the television. Every five-year-old has heard a parent yell “Turn down the volume!” enough times that they will understand what an adult means by volume. Again state that vowel sounds are the sounds that give words their volume and proceed with the following demonstration.

Ask your child to tell you the sounds in the word fish. If he can segment, he will tell you /f/-/i/-/sh/ are the sounds. (If he can't tell you the sounds in fish, then he needs to do some more Basic Code work before worrying about this explanation.) Then ask him if he knows which sound is the vowel sound. He might say /i/, or he might not. Tell him if he doesn’t know. Then tell him you are both going to try saying fish without the vowel sound. In other words, you’re both going to say "fsh" (/f/sh/; no /i/ sound) and you’re both going to say it as loud as you can. Incidentally, the presence of other people within hearing distance helps make the point here.

Spend a few seconds yelling "fsh" at the top of your lungs and then tell him you’re going to put the /i/ sound back in and yell "fish" as loud as you both can. I had lots of kids yelling "fsh!" as loud as they possibly could in my office, but not one ever dared let loose with full volume on "fish!" They immediately realized that the /i/ makes fish potentially much louder.

Vowel sounds give words their volume; the consonant sounds are the quieter soundsReiterate the point that it’s that little /i/, the vowel sound, that makes fish so much louder than fsh and then tell your child that all of the sounds that add volume to words are vowel sounds and that the quieter sounds are called consonant sounds. You can, if you want, experiment with words with other vowel sounds, such as toy without /oy/, cow without /ow/ and her without /er/, explaining that /oy/, /ow/ and /er/ are vowel sounds also.

At this point in the explanation of vowel sounds, I used to point to a long list of 19 vowel sounds in the OnTrack Reading Phonics Program that was pasted on one side of the table and tell my clients that those are the vowel sounds in English words and that we would be studying all of them. Following this demonstration and explanation, my clients (and their parents) finally had some concept of what is actually meant by vowel sounds and how they differ from consonant sounds.

Practicing the Short Vowel Sounds

Most adults know that the short vowel sounds refer to the /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/ sounds in the words hat, net, hit, hot, and hut, respectively, but a lot of schools don't use that terminology anymore, so your child might not know it. I took advantage of this fact to relabel the short vowel sounds in the curriculum. Instead, I call them the First Vowel Sounds.

Your child needs to learn the First Vowel Sounds cold. They need to be automatically recalled when he sees them if he is to become efficient at decoding longer, multisyllable words eventually. So, here's a worksheet that you can download so he can practice them.

Download the Free Phonics Worksheet: First Vowel Sounds

The title of the worksheet implies that the vowel sounds /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/ form a class, that is, that these five sounds somehow belong together. First, Second, and Third Vowel Sound is a more meaningful way to refer to vowel options than Short, Long, and ???This class is called the First Vowel Sound, a term that has exactly the same meaning as the older short vowel sound. The old long sound will later be termed the Second Vowel Sound. Just as we once learned two classes of vowel sounds, short and long, your child should learn two classes of vowel sounds, First and Second.

Why the change in terminology? Well, first of all most children don’t learn the older terminology in school any longer, so it’s not asking them to discard something. But more important, the terminology first and second leads logically to third, and even fourth vowel sounds. And, indeed, the letters a, i, o and u all have at least a third vowel sound associated with them.

Now, the purpose of the worksheet you downloaded here is to quickly train your child to know the first vowel sounds while also training him to think of them as a class with similar characteristics. The first characteristic that they share is that they are typically the sound used in the center of a three letter word, such as cat and hot. To make that point in a subtle manner, the key words for each of the sounds are the three letter words, cat, net, sit, hot and cut, all with the vowel spelling in the center of a three letter word that they should be able to decode.

Directions for Using the First Vowel Sounds Phonics Worksheet

Here’s how to use the worksheet. Go over the key words to see that your child knows each of them and then have him say /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/ as you point to the letter next to each word. Then move to the first line and have him do it again, letting him glance at the key words if necessary. Then try the second line, which mixes them up a bit. Again, let him look at the key words.

By now, you’ll have noticed that your child is struggling with one or two of the letters more than the others. Say he keeps saying /u/ for the letter "a." Tell him he’s having trouble with the /a/ sound and that you’re going to try the /a/ row. (Reminder, /a/ means you’re saying the sound, not the letter name.) Go to the third row which starts with the letter "a" and repeats the letter "a" every other letter.

Spend just a few minutes per day working on this exercise and the First Vowel Sounds will soon be easily recalledAs your child goes over the /a/ row, note again which of the other letters he struggles over and then say you’re going to have him try, say, the /o/ row and go to the row starting with the letter "o." Practice this for just two or three minutes and praise any obvious progress. Then put it aside and return to it later for an additional two to three minutes. If you continue this process over just a few days, you will see your child automating the process of saying the correct sound when he looks at its associated letter without any longer having to look at the key words. And, he will begin to think of them as a class of sounds because they are always being practiced together and being referred to by the common terminology, First Vowel Sounds.

Expected Results

Using this worksheet, nearly every client of OnTrack Reading managed to learn the First Vowel Sounds by the time they returned for the following week’s lesson, so give it a try. The end result will be that your child knows the sounds and no longer has to look up at the ceiling and visualize an octopus and then say /o/ to himself before returning to the text to read a word like lots or plot. He also won't find himself thinking about an octopus in the middle of whatever story he's reading.

If you find this lesson useful, consider returning and investigating the OnTrack Reading Advanced Code Phonics Workbook. The workbook is a complete advanced code phonics program that incorporates each of these "Tidbits" and covers precisely the information your child will need to become proficient in phonics, including the most effective multisyllable decoding method you will find anywhere. (Seriously, it is the best multisyllable method you will find anywhere because it uses the same "kid-logic" approach that you've found here.)

After your child understands what a vowel sound is, the lesson on the next page, Explaining Split Vowel Digraphs, contains valuable information on how to teach a child about split vowel words like save, shine, tone, theme, and cute, where the vowel spelling is "split" by the ending consonant sound. You'll also find there an explanation as to why one should generally avoid terms like "silent-e" and "magic-e" when describing the vowel spellings in a word containing a split vowel digraph.