Introduction to English Vowel Sounds
What are vowel sounds?
English has fifteen vowel sounds represented by the letters a, e, i, o, and u. The letters y, w and gh are also commonly used in vowel sound spellings. Vowel sounds are produced with a relatively open vocal tract. Consonant sounds, in contrast, are created by pushing air through a small opening in the vocal tract or by building up air in the vocal tract, then releasing it.
Categories of vowel sounds
Vowel sounds are divided into the following three categories:
- Long vowels (vowels that sound like the letter name)
- Short vowels (the most common sound for a single vowel spelling)
- Other vowels (the remaining vowel sounds)
The long vowel sounds are not pronounced for longer time than short vowel sounds!
It is important for ESL/ELL/EFL students to realize that the terms "long" and "short" are not describing the length of time a vowel sound is said. These archaic terms are still in popular use in American classrooms and online. They are used here to give a name to a vowel sound so when the sound is discussed, the name and not the sound (which many beginner students cannot yet hear correctly) is used.
The vowel chart shows the key word, or quick reference word, for each English vowel sound. Key words are used because vowel sounds are easier to hear within a word than when they are spoken in isolation. Memorizing key words allows easier comparison between different vowel sounds.
Phonics: The way sounds are spelled
Phonics is the link between the spelling of a word and its pronunciation. Since English has more sounds than letters, a combination of letters is often necessary to represent a single sound.
At their simplest, short vowel sounds are usually spelled with a single letter, while long vowel and other vowel sounds are generally spelled with combinations of letters. This should not be taken as a strict rule when learning English pronunciation, however, as there are a large number of exceptions. In addition, many spelling patterns of English pronunciation have the possibility of two or more pronunciations using that single spelling. For example, the letters 'e-a' have a different pronunciation in the words team (long e /i/) and dead (short e /ɛ/). It is helpful to learn the common spellings for each vowel sound along with knowing all the possible pronunciations for each spelling.
The English language also has a large number of words that are not pronounced the way their spelling suggests. These are called non-phonetic words, and must be memorized individually.
Vowel sounds and syllable stress
Vowel sounds and syllables are closely related. Syllables are naturally occurring units of sound that create the rhythm of spoken English. Words with multiple syllables always have one syllable that is stressed (given extra emphasis).
Unstressed syllables may contain schwa /ə/, and can have almost any spelling. In addition, three consonant sounds, the n sound, l sound, and r sound (called 'schwa+r' /ɚ/ when it is syllabic) can create a syllable without an additional vowel sound. These are called syllabic consonants.