Why Vowels are the Trickiest Sounds

Posted by Brainspring on 30th Oct 2019

Vowels are the trickiest sounds in our language.  They can be especially frustrating for struggling readers and challenging for teachers as well.  It’s not your imagination that the /o/ sound in “dog” is different than the /o/ sound in “octopus”, even though we claim both words use short o.  Yes, “catch” does sound more like short e than short a.  What is going on here?  Today’s post is a short introduction to vowels that will help answer some of these questions.

Before we get into some technical background about vowels, we will first give a few multisensory activity suggestions for helping student master vowel sounds.

Vowel Intensive Activities

Students especially struggle with short vowels because the difference between the vowel sounds can be subtle.  It doesn’t help that these vowel sounds can vary from word to word (more on that in the sections that follow). If you’re working with struggling students, the best way to improve their vowel skills is short, frequent practice. Use vowel intensive activities to help students focus on listening and distinguishing between two specific vowel sounds.

Try the following progression if your students are just beginning short vowel practice. First, give the vowel in isolation; then, put a consonant sound after the vowel; finally, use the vowel in a short CVC word or nonsense word.

Stage 1: “a” (V)

Stage 2: “at” (VC)

Stage 3: “cat” (CVC)

There are many ways for students to demonstrate which sound they hear.  Below are a few suggetions.

Make it Multisensory

Vowel sticks (see below) are a great vowel intensive option. As you call out vowels (V/VC/CVC) students listen for the vowel heard and hold up the corresponding vowel stick.  A quick whole class vowel intensive is to use hand motions. For example, ask students to pretend they are biting an apple for /a/, wiggle their fingers like an octopus for /o/, itch their nose or arm for /i/, pretend to push up an umbrella for /u/ and make an elephant trunk with their arm for /e/.  Some other favorites include having students stand up or sit down for different vowel sounds heard, and/or having them sort pennies or candy into piles (a good use for holiday candy leftovers!).

Talking about the shape of the mouth and position of the tongue and lips when making the vowel sounds can also assist students who are struggling with vowel differentiation. Students who cannot pronounce the vowels properly will have an even harder time hearing and spelling the proper sounds. Model the proper mouth shape and sound for the students and, if needed, use mirrors to let them see if they are making the proper shape. Talking about the mouth shape will also provide the students with visual cues for distinguishing the sounds.

Some older students may need support to use the correct short vowel when spelling. In these cases, try having students make columns on their paper and label each with a short vowel. As you call out words, students first point to the vowel column they heard, then write.  You can use this same idea with vowel pictures instead.  The student would point to the vowel they heard before writing the word on paper.

Now onto a more in-depth explanation of vowels for those of you who love learning about language (like us!).

What is a Vowel?

The definition of a vowel, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a speech sound made with your mouth open and your tongue in the middle of your mouth not touching your teeth, lips, etc.”  Basically, a vowel is produced when there is no obstruction to the air coming out of your larynx (voice box).  When the air is obstructed by your teeth, tongue or lips, a consonant sound is created instead.  Teeth, lips, and especially the tongue filter or amplify the sound from the larynx. We perceive the different filtering and amplifications as different vowels.


Vowel sounds are classified by three things:  the height of the raised part of the tongue, the part of the tongue that is raised, and the position of the lips.  How many different heights can you raise your tongue to?  How many ways can you position your lips?  How many specific parts of your tongue can you raise?  For many, the answer to all of these questions is “I don’t know.  I can’t count them.”

Think about it.  There is a whole gradient of heights between the bottom and roof of your mouth.  Your lips can be positioned anywhere between pursed together like an angry face and stretched into a wide O like when Kevin puts on aftershave in Home Alone.  The same goes for parts of the tongue; I can’t identify each specific spot, only general regions.  This is what makes vowels so tricky: the classifications exist on a continuum, not as distinct points of sound.


Along the top of the diagram below, front, central and back refer to where the tongue is raised in the mouth.  Along the bottom, unround and round refer to the position of the lips.  Along the left, close, half-close, half-open and open refer to the height of the tongue, which also corresponds to how open the jaw feels.

British Vowels


The dots locating each vowel sounds are general markers.  Any time you make a sound with unrounded lips, tongue towards the front, and your mouth open so tongue is low and not in the way, you’re making a short a sound.  That sound can have many variations, however, depending on the exact position of these parts, which will vary based on the other sounds in the word you’re saying.

When we speak, all the parts of our mouth are in constant motion: we don’t say each sound individually.  The position of the lips and tongue when the word “dog” is spoken is different than when “octopus” is said.  Since the position of the mouth is in the general area of short o, that’s what our brains classify the sound as.


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