English (UK) Vowel Sounds

phoneme chartLearning to hear and differentiate the vowel sounds from consonant sounds is an important skill in understanding how words are formed. Every word in the English Language has to have a vowel sound in it and every syllable in a word also has to have a vowel sound within it. This knowledge is an important element in developing our phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge as we start to learn how to read and spell words.

There are 20 vowel sounds in the English (UK) Language, usually (in the UK Education System) split into two main categories based on sound quality:

  • ‘Short’ vowel sounds, due to the short duration of the sound being made, the sound cannot be held onto without becoming distorted, such as the /e,(e)/ in me, pea and tree
  • ‘Long’ vowel sounds, due to the length of their pronunciation, these can often be held without distorting their sound, such as the /oi,(ɔI)/ sound found in the words: boy, coin and buoy

Here at Teach Phonics we split the ‘long’ vowel sounds category into ‘long’ vowel sounds and ‘long ‘R’ controlled’ vowel sounds. The ‘long ’R’ controlled’ vowel sounds are so called because of the slight /r,(r)/ sound quality that can be heard in them for example the /or,(ɔː)/ sound found in the words: fork, door, walk and sauce.

The English Phoneme Chart, which uses the unique symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), splits the 20 vowel sounds into two groups based on mouth position:

  • Monophthongs which have one mouth position throughout the sound for example /e,(e)/ in me.
  • Diphthongs, where the mouth position changes, giving a 2 sounds quality to the phoneme for example, /oi,(ɔI)/ in boy.

The Consonant Sounds with their Most Common Letter and Letter Combinations

Consonants 2

There are 24 consonant sounds in the English language. A consonant sound is made (produced) when the air flow is being restricted in some way, which means that the mouth doesn’t open as wide and so the jaw doesn’t drop noticeably, which is different from vowel sounds.

Here is a list of just some of the most commonly seen letter and letter combinations used to represent the 24 consonant sounds. For a more comprehensive lists check out our English Phoneme Chart or Alphabet Keyboard which can be found on our ‘Phonemes’ page: bit.ly/1Qgc9dA

  • /b,(b)/ bin, rabbit
  • /k,(k)/ cat, key, duck, queen, anchor, broccoli
  • /ch,(ʧ)/ church, watch
  • /d,(d)/ dog, ladder, towed
  • /f,(f)/  fish, puffin, phone, laugh
  • /g,(g)/ girl, digger, ghost
  • /h,(h)/ hen, who
  • /j,(ʤ)/  jigsaw, giant, bridge
  • /l,(l)/   lion, llama
  • /m,(m)/  man, hammer, lamb
  • /n,(n)/   nest, penny, knife, gnome
  • /ng,(ŋ)/ king, sink
  • /p,(p)/    panda, hippo
  • /r,(r)/   robin, lorry, wrist
  • /s,(s)/  sun, dress, city, geese, castle
  • /sh,(ʃ)/  ship, chef, delicious, initials, sugar
  • /t,(t)/   tent, butterfly, jumped
  • /th,(θ)/  thumb
  • /th,(ð)/ feather, breathe
  • /v,(v)/ van, sleeve, of
  • /w,(w)/ well, whale, penguin
  • /y,(j)/ yo-yo, euro
  • /z,(z)/  zero, puzzle, sneeze, cheese, is
  • /zh,(Ʒ)/ measure, television

What are Vowels and Consonants?

Vowels & Consonants 1

The English Language is created through the different combinations of 44 sounds (phonemes), 20 vowels and 24 consonants. In our written language we refer to the letters of the alphabet as being consonant or vowel letters depending on which type of sound they are representing.

Vowel sounds allow the air to flow freely, causing the chin to drop noticeably, whilst consonant sounds are produced by restricting the air flow.

Vowel sounds are usually (in the UK Education System) split into two main categories based on sound quality:

  • ‘Short’ vowel sounds, due to the short duration of the sound being made. The sound cannot be held onto without becoming distorted
  • ‘Long’ vowel sounds, due to the length of their pronunciation. These can often be held without distorting their sound.

The letters of the alphabet that we normally associate as being the vowel letters are: a, e, i, o and u. The letter ‘y’ is sometimes referred to as an honorary vowel as it is used to replace one of the other vowel letters in words such as: fly or my.

All words in the English language have at least one vowel sound in them so the written version must have at least one vowel letter in it.

Consonant sounds are made (produced) when the air flow is being restricted in some way, for example, changes in tongue position resulting in the mouth not opening as wide. This means that the jaw doesn’t drop noticeably, which is different to vowel sounds.

The letters of the alphabet that usually represent the consonant sounds are: b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z.

Accents and Phonics

Bath - phonics section

Because the English language is so rich and diverse it is very difficult to create a phonics system that caters for all. Every region that speaks the English language has its own accent which means there are always variations in the way that a word is pronounced.

Across England we all spell words the same but we certainly do not say them all the same, even though we all use the same 44 sounds. In the English language the 44 sounds can be represented by over 280 letter combinations.

So accents have arisen from regions applying different phonemes (sounds) to graphemes (letters) when they pronounce words. The regions still use the same sounds and letters, they just associate them differently.

For example, in the South of England the letter ‘a’ can be pronounced as the ‘long ’R’ controlled’ vowel sound /ar,(ɑː)/ in words such as ‘grass’ and ‘bath’ whereas in the North of England it will be pronounced as the ‘short’ vowel /a,(æ)/ sound in these two words.

Click here scroll down the page to see the animations of the different pronunciations of the word ‘bath’.

Both pronunciations are correct, which can make teaching phonics a little tricky; the key is to teach the sound to letter relationships which best suit the children being taught in relation to their regional accent. It is important to remember that children’s knowledge of the sounds that make words is based on how you speak to them naturally and not a strict standardized set of sounds.

However, for general educational and learning purposes the English language’s phonics system has been standardized, this is known as the ‘Received Pronounced’ (RP) English, and is used in comprehensive English dictionaries and translation dictionaries. The RP is based on a southern accent sound to letter relationship basis.