Understanding long and short vowels is the foundation for literacy in the English language. However, vowels are tricky to understand, and sometimes children may struggle to distinguish between similar sounds and words like feet and fit or pin and pine.
When children learn how to use vowels early, it improves their spelling, pronunciation, and reading skills. This article will provide some effective ways to teach long and short vowels to children in your early education program.
What are long and short vowels?
The vowels in the English alphabet are /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/. The letters /w/ and /y/ are considered semi-vowels, because their sounds are phonetically similar to actual vowels. In some words, vowels make long sounds, and in others, they make short sounds. So how can you tell the difference?
Long vowels sound the same as their spoken name. For example, the vowel /a/ in bake sounds the same as the letter /a/ in the alphabet. Long vowels are easy to identify because they sound like their name, but they can be tricky to learn, as there are various spellings for each long vowel sound. Examples of long vowel words include:
- Long /a/: baby, make, stay
- Long /e/: me, we, feet
- Long /i/: lion, ice, bike
- Long /o/: cold, go, nose
Long /u/: music, unicorn, cube
Sometimes long vowels are represented by two letters like “ee” in see, “ea” in read, and “ie” in tie.
Here are four ways long vowel sounds are formed:
- Vowels at the end of a syllable make a long vowel sound, for example, me and hero.
- Vowel teams form long vowels, for example, “ai” in paid, “ee” in feet, “ie” in pie, and “oa” in boat.
- A silent /e/ makes the previous vowel in the word long, like in the words take and nice. It also turns short vowel words into long vowel words; for example, mat becomes mate.
- Letters /i/ and /o/ make long vowel sounds when they come before two consonants, like in the words find and cold.
When teaching your preschoolers long vowels, focus on easy words and only one of the above rules at a time. Of course, there are exceptions to some rules. For example, the silent /e/ doesn’t typically apply to the vowel /e/ and may cause confusion, so remember to handle each exception individually when it comes up.
Unlike long vowels that sound more drawn out, short vowels sound quick and concise. Also, they’re typically represented by one vowel letter—for example, /a/ in hat, /e/ in bet, /i/ in bin, /o/ in hop, and /u/ in fun. Short vowels sound as follows:
- /a/ sounds like “ah” as in cat, apple, tan
- /e/ sounds like “eh” as in hen, egg, fed
- /i/ sounds like “ih” as in ink, ring, bill
- /o/ sounds like “awe” as in log, fox, rod
- /u/ sounds like “uh” as in ulcer, bug, run
All CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) and VC (vowel-consonant) words have short vowels. CVC words are three-letter words with a vowel in the middle of two consonants, like mom, sit, and man. VC words are two-letter words starting with a vowel and ending with a consonant, like at, if, and on.
Challenges with vowel sounds
Generally, vowels are challenging to learn for children and English language learners. There’s no movement in your mouth (lips, tongue, and teeth) when sounding out vowels—they don’t sound crisp like consonants. Besides that, children struggle with vowel sounds for various reasons. Some children lack auditory discrimination skills; for example, they struggle to differentiate short /e/ and short /i/. Others may have a speech sound disorder or phonological processing issues. Unfortunately, children who face vowel confusion or don’t understand their importance will face problems spelling and articulating words, a critical language development milestone by five years old.
The good news is teachers can help children improve their knowledge of short vowel sounds by incorporating movements to align with each sound. For example, for the vowel /a/, position your hands underneath your eyes, pretending to cry; for /e/, place your hand behind your ear, pretending not to hear. For /i/, put your finger below your lip; for /o/, trace a circle around your open mouth with your finger; for /u/, raise your hands above your head in a “u” shape. Short vowel sound gestures are a popular technique for programs with children struggling with vowel sounds. The gestures cue the children, engage them, and make learning fun.
How to teach long and short vowels
It’s effective to teach children short vowels first because they have more consistent spelling. Most long vowel words like take and fine have two vowels, which can confuse young learners. Here are a few ways you can teach children short vowels:
Teach the vowels first
The first step is to ensure that you’re teaching your preschoolers the right sound for each vowel letter /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/. Take one vowel at a time so your little learners can get comfortable learning and sounding out the vowels without getting overwhelmed. You can also have children sing Old MacDonald Had a Farm, replacing the phrase, “e, i, e, i, o” with “a, e, i, o, u” so they can memorize the vowels. Besides singing, you can create distinct and bright-colored vowel letters (with cardboard or play dough) that the children can touch and feel.
Teach word families for CVC words
A word family is a set of words with similar patterns, like -at, -an, -ap, and -in. Consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words are short, with one vowel, making them easy to learn. Teaching word families for CVC words helps children learn how to sound out and spell related words. You can sound out CVC words by emphasizing the phonemes. For example, say /p/…/a/…/n/ and blend them into pan. When a child learns the word family “-an”, they can spell words like fan, can, tan, and man. Remember to teach one word family at a time so they can grasp the concept easier.
When teaching long and short vowels, use objects and pictures associated with the vowel sound—this will help the children understand and practice the correct sounds. For example, for short vowels, you can illustrate “A” with an apple, “E” with a picture of an elephant, and “O” with an orange. For long vowels, you can illustrate “A” with a picture of an angel or acorn and “I” with ice cream.
The silent /e/
Children are typically introduced to long vowels with the CVCe pattern. The pattern forms by transforming a short vowel word into a long vowel word by placing the silent letter /e/ at the end. For example, tap becomes tape, fin becomes fine, and mat becomes mate. Remember, this doesn’t apply to all short vowel words. Help the children understand this concept by using phonemic awareness, for example, asking them if the words mat and mate sound the same. Be sure to say the individual sounds of the CVC and CVCe words slowly and have them repeat the sounds.
Use diacritical marks
Placing diacritical marks on top of the vowels helps the children know whether to use a short or long vowel sound. A curved symbol (breve) above the vowel identifies short vowels, for example, /ă/ in făn, while a horizontal bar (macron) above the vowel represents a long vowel, like /ā/ in pāin. Your children will recognize the vowel and make the correct sound.
Use movement and gestures
Hand gestures and other movements are engaging and help children remember vowel sounds through muscle memory and kinesthetic learning. Create a movement for each sound so children can easily associate the action with the vowel sound they’re making. For example, the children can clap once for the short /a/ sound and raise their right hand for the long /e/ sound.
Short vowel activities
Your children will enjoy these simple short vowel activities while learning the sounds:
Vowel cup game
This fun activity helps children practice vowel sounds. First, label five cups by writing a vowel on each. Next, hide a marble or other small object under one cup. Then have each child take a turn guessing which cup the marble is under and saying the vowel sound on the cup when they find the marble.
You’ll need sand and paper plates for this activity—if you can get colored sand, that’ll be even more fun. Pour the sand onto a paper plate or tray for each child. Mention a short vowel sound and have the children write the letter in the sand while saying it out loud.
CVC word game
Games are a fun way to learn sounds. For example, you can play “I Spy” by picking out CVC word objects in your classroom, like a bin, pen, tin, or mat. Then sound out the consonants and vowel in the word, saying, “I spy with my little eye a /p/-/e/-/n/.” Next, the children must blend the sounds to form the word and identify the object. If some children find the blending difficult, try stretching each sound without pausing.
Long vowel activities
These long vowel activities will help your children learn long vowel sounds:
Segment and blend
For this activity, you need cards with colorful pictures and their corresponding long vowel words (for example, a card with an image of a cake and the word cake). Segment each word (break it down into individual sounds), like /c/-/a/-/ke/, and combine (blend) them to create the word. Say the sounds and have the children repeat them after you. Segmenting and blending is a critical component of phonological awareness, which builds children’s sound recognition skills.
Give the children cards with simple long vowel words you have already reviewed and cards with images of the words. Then have them match each word to its corresponding picture.
The word hunt can be an individual or class activity. First, write a few long-vowel and short-vowel words on a whiteboard or individual sheets of paper. Then have the children identify and circle the long vowel words.
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The bottom line
Long and short vowels can be confusing for young children; however, regular and consistent practice will help them lay a foundation for the literacy skills they’ll need going forward. Remember to keep it fun with exciting and engaging activities. Soon, your little learners will be competent and confident spellers and readers.