Vowel Sounds & Spelling
The long and short of it
Vowels are represented by 6 letters, “a, e, i, o, u, y,” but create 14 different vowel sounds. How do you know which sound a vowel letter represents?
There aren’t any spelling rules that work 100% of the time, but there are some that work most of the time. There are ways to identify when the two major vowel groups of short/lax and long/tense will be used in words. These will help you make good guesses for words that you’ve never seen before.
The more exposure you have to a variety of spellings the better you’ll get at pattern recognition. Your focus should be on patterns of letters that represent sounds in the most common spellings.
Long and Short
The two main groups of vowels are called “long vowels” and “short vowels.” The long vowels include tense vowels and diphthongs (a vowel with two parts) and the short vowels are lax and simple/pure vowels. It does take slightly more time to produce a diphthong and hold the tension in the tongue for the long vowels than the short vowels. However, this doesn’t necessarily always describe the duration of the vowel sound because the vowel in the stressed syllable of a word will always be stretched and have a long duration.
Tense and Lax
Another description of groups is “tense” for “long” and “lax” for “short” because they describe the tension in the tongue while it makes that sound. When you pronounce the /i/ vowel in “eat” the tongue is in the highest position it ever is for any vowel with the middle of the tongue pushing up and forward. It should feel tense due to the pressure being used to hold this position. When the tongue relaxes and the middle of the tongue lowers slightly, this produces the lax vowel /ɪ/ in “it.” When you put your hand under your chin, you’ll feel your neck push down a bit when you produce the tension for /i/ (“eat”) and go back up a bit when you relax the tongue to produce /ɪ/ (“it”).
Rules that work most of the time:
“Long Vowel Sounds” = A long vowel will sound like its name in the alphabet.
Example: What is the name of this letter? A
What sound does it make for the “long sound”? /eɪ/ as in “cake”
How do you know when a vowel is pronounced with the “long/tense” sound?
Rule 1: Silent “e”
When a syllable ends in a silent “e” the vowel before it is long (says its name)
Examples: cake, use, vote, mile
Rule 2: Two-vowels together
“When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking, and it says its name.”
Examples: meat, boat, plain, main
Rule 4: A single syllable word, ends with vowel
Examples: me, go, I,
Rule 3: In a stressed vowel followed by one consonant
Example: paper, sofa, hoping, writer
“Short Vowel Sounds” = A short vowel will NOT sound like its name in the alphabet, it has a related sound.
How do you know when a vowel is pronounced with the “short/lax” sound?
Rule: One or more consonants follow the vowel
Examples of one consonant after the vowel: hat, bed, it, on, up
Examples of more than one consonant after the vowel: happy, messy, itchy, off, under
The rules for long (tense) and short (lax) vowels don’t work 100% of the time and they don’t cover 100% of the spelling possibilities. There are many more spelling variations for sounds than people ever learn explicitly. Here are the most common: