English (UK) Vowel Sounds

Learning 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
  • ‘Long’ vowel sounds, due to the length of their pronunciation, these can often be held without distorting their sound.

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.

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

  • Monophthongs which have one mouth position throughout the sound
  • Diphthongs, where the mouth position changes, giving a 2 sound quality to the phoneme.

Sounds in the English (UK) Language

Blog Phonics

The English Language is created through the different combinations of 44 sounds (phonemes), 20 vowels and 24 consonants. 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.

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.

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 with 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.

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 relationships basis.

This 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.

What are Graphemes & Phonemes?

 

Graphemes are the alphabet letters, or letter combinations, that represent a single sound in a written word.

An example of a single letter representing a single sound (a grapheme) can be seen in the following words: sat, pat and dog.

Some sounds are represented by two letters and are called digraphs such as the ‘ch’ in ‘chip’ or ‘sh’ in ‘shop’ or ‘ea’ in ‘head’ and the ‘ai’ in ‘rain’.

Other sounds can be represented by 3 (trigraphs) or 4 (quadgraph) letter combinations such as ‘igh’ in ‘light’ and ‘eigh’ in ‘eight’.

Phonemes are the smallest units of sound of a language; which we blend together to form words.

The English Language has 44 phonemes, 24 consonants and 20 vowels, represented by the unique symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

The 44 phonemes of English are represented by more than 280 letter or letter combinations. Most letters therefore never make just one sound and that sound can be made by more than one letter or letter combination.

We have created over 1,000 videos that split words into their individual phonemes, showing which letters are making which sound in each word. You can access these videos in two ways:

  • If you want to know which letter or letter combination represents a sound, click on the relevant phoneme button on the English Phoneme Chart;
  • If you want to know what sound a letter or letter combination makes, click on the relevant letter or letter combination on the Alphabet Keyboard.

We hope you find these useful.

Syllable Awareness & Counting

Syllables snowman

At about the age of 4 years old children start to develop an understanding that words can be split into parts (syllables) and that these parts give the word its rhythm.  A syllable is the largest phonological unit (one or a group of sounds) of a word and is like the rhythmic beat of the word.

They should be able to orally blend syllables together to form words and segment words into syllables.

A fun activity to help develop syllable understanding:

How Many Syllables?     

Children love to clap out the number of syllables in a word. It is important to say the word at a normal speed rather than really slowly as this can distort the word and make it difficult to hear the syllables. To start with your child just needs to be able to recognize them by clapping, stamping or jumping for each syllable of a word; they don’t need to be able to count them. It is thought that only about 50% of children can count out the syllables by the age of 4, so you can do the counting for them.

Spoken syllables are organised around the vowel sounds, making counting them easy; as the jaw drops when the vowel sound is spoken in the syllable. Try placing your hand under your jaw with your mouth closed before you say a word. Start with ‘cat’ you will notice the jaw drops once, this is because it is a one syllable (monosyllabic) word.

Most children will find it easier to identify syllables in compound words to start with. A compound word is formed by two words (root words) put together such as: sunset, hotbed, snowman and postman. They find it easier because the jaw tends to drop quite distinctly. As we say the vowel sound in each of the root words and because we tend to say these words slowly.

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 and 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.

The ‘Long Vowel’ Sounds

Tree animation   Toy animation

There are 13 ‘long vowel’ sounds in total; 7 ‘long vowel’ sounds and 6 ‘long ‘R’ controlled vowel’ sounds.

The 7 ‘long vowel’ sounds are so called due to the length of their pronunciation; these can often be held without distorting their sound.

 The /ai,(eI)/ sound found in the words: train, tray, cake and break.

The /oa,(ǝƱ)/ sound found in the words: boat, hotel, toe and bone.

The /oi,(ɔI)/ sound found in the words: boy, coin and buoy.

The /ow,(aƱ)/ sound found in the words: owl, house, drought and hour.

The /ee,(іː)/ sound found in the words: tree, pea, me, and pony.

The /I,(aI)/ sound found in the words :iron, fly, pie and light.

The /oo,(uː)/ sound found in the words: spoon, blue, screw and you.

The 6 ‘long ‘R’ controlled vowel’ sounds are so called because of the slight /r,(r)/ sound quality that can be heard in them along with the length of their pronunciation; these can often be held without distorting their sound.

The /ar,(ɑː)/ sound found in the words: car, father (southern UK accent) and art.

The /or,(ɔː)/ sound found in the words: fork, door, walk and sauce.

The /ear,(Iǝ)/ sound found in the words: ear, here, deer and pier.

The /er,(ɜː)/ sound found in the words: bird, kerb, nurse and worm.

The /re,(Ʊǝ)/ sound found in the words: manure, tour and mature.

The /air,(eǝ)/ sound found in the words: chair, pear, square and where.

 

How Many ‘Short Vowel’ Sounds Do You Know?

 

Egg animation   Ant picture card

There are 7 ‘short vowel’ sounds, although children are usually only introduced to the 5 which are most commonly heard in simple CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant) words: /a,(æ)/ in cat, /e,(e)/ in peg, /i,(I)/ in pin, /o,(ɒ)/ in hot, /u,(ʌ)/ in bus.

The other two ‘short vowel’ sounds are: /oo(u),(Ʊ)/ in bull or could and /uh,(ǝ or schwa)/ heard  as the final sound in the words: zebra, doctor and corner.

Our ‘Short Vowel’ Finger Chant can help you, and your child, to learn and remember the 7 ‘short vowel’ sounds: https://www.teachphonics.co.uk/free-resources-phonics.html