Post 3: All About Vowels

It is important that readers know about vowels and how vowels are different from consonants. Merriam-Webster gives the following definition of a vowel:

  • one of a class of speech sounds in the articulation of which the oral part of the breath channel is not blocked and is not constricted enough to cause audible friction;

It also simplifies this definition for students:

  • a speech sound produced without obstruction in the mouth

The best way I’ve found to explain vowels is through singing. Because vowel sounds have uninterrupted air flow, they are great for singing. I start by singing several notes in a row using the short vowel sound ‘o’ (written as ŏ). Students join in and try to pay attention to their air flow and how their mouths are feeling. Point out that the sound only stops when you run out of air. It’s fun to try this with all the different vowel sounds. Students should pair up and look at the shape of their partner’s mouth. It’s good for students to start thinking about and feeling how their mouth shape changes with the different vowel sounds.

Next, we look at consonants. I usually ask a student to pick any consonant. We then make the sound, and try to figure out what is happening with our mouths and our throats as we make the sounds. With most letters, students can tell what is stopping the air flow. Sometimes it’s the teeth, sometimes the tongue, and sometimes the throat. The letters ‘n’ and ‘m’ are also lots of fun because they are ‘nasal’ letters – the air comes out the nose. The students love making the ‘m’ sound and then plugging their nose, which promptly stops the air from coming out. Again in partners, we choose different consonants, play with the sounds, and watch each other’s mouths as they switch from consonant to consonant.

During this exercise, I also take the opportunity to introduce ‘voiced’ and ‘unvoiced’ letters. Have students place their hands gently over their throats. When making a letter that is ‘voiced’, students will be able to feel their voice box vibrating. All vowels are ‘voiced’, so they are great letters to start with. It’s important that students learn to pronounce ‘unvoiced’ letters properly, using only air and mouth position. For instance, the letter ‘t’ should not be pronounced as ‘tuh’ – having your hand on your throat is a great way to check to make sure you are saying the sounds properly. They should use air only to make ‘unvoiced’ sounds, no vocal cord vibration. The following letters should be unvoiced:

  • c, f, h, k, p, s, t, x, sh, and ch

This video talks a little more about voiced vs unvoiced consonants:

It’s important for students to understand about vowels for several reasons. Firstly, every syllable has a vowel sound. If students understand this, it can help them with their spelling. If they are writing a word with three syllables, then they need to make sure that they have at least 3 vowels written down. An understanding of the mouth formation made when pronouncing vowels can help this process. Because vowel sounds are unobstructed, the mouth naturally opens and the jaw drops every time a vowel sound is made. Students can put their hand palm down under their chin, and feel when their jaw drops, which will happen once for every syllable in a word. The following video demonstrates this process:

A second reason why an understanding of vowels is important has to do with recognizing syllable types. The 6 main syllable types are defined by the location of the vowel in the syllable and what letters come after the vowel. Students need to be able to quickly identify which letters are vowels, and how the vowel sound changes based on where the vowel sits and what letters follow it.

In the next few posts, I’ll delve into the different syllable types and strategies for teaching them. In the meantime, I’ve attached a few beginning games that can help students identify some of the common graphemes that represent vowel sounds. These are beginning games, and only cover <a>, <e>, <i>, <o>, <u>.  I introduce vowel teams, and “sometimes <y> and <w>” at a later point in lesson series. 

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