You'd be surprised how many children, and adults too, you can stump when you ask the seemingly simple question, “What are 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. Very few of my young clients, and not many of their parents, actually knew what the main difference is between vowel sounds and consonant sounds.
What is a Vowel Sound?
Simply put, vowel sounds are the loud sounds in words. Consonant sounds are the quiet ones. Here's an effective way to teach a child how to recognize the vowel sounds in words.
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 say “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.
Reiterate 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 she without /ee/, explaining that /oy/, /ow/ and /ee/ are vowel sounds also.
For a list of the 19 vowel sounds and the 24 consonant sounds taught in the OnTrack Reading Phonics Program, see Notation for the 43 Sounds. Incidentally, the above explanation, along with most of the other lessons in these reading "Tidbits", are included in the OnTrack Reading Advanced Code Phonics Workbook.
The article Memorizing the Short Vowel Sounds has an exercise you can use to help your child memorize the short vowel sounds in words like cat, red, and sit. Once they have them memorized, the article Explaining Split Vowel Digraphs introduces the long sounds.