Developing Phonics Knowledge: Vowels
Phonics knowledge is defined as having an association between a letter and the sound it represents. The focus here is on associations between vowel letters and the sounds they represent.
The student is unable to use vowels to decode one-syllable words because she is unable to give the correct sounds and variant sounds of the vowels and vowel teams.
It is important to recognize that the vowel rules are the least consistent phonics generalizations in English. It would probably be accurate to say that those students who least need them—the students who are already capable decoders—best understand these rules. Thus, forcing students with reading difficulties to learn many inconsistent phonics rules often proves fruitless.
Assessing Phonics Knowledge
To check the student’s knowledge of vowels, use a Phonics Assessment. If you wish to know if a specific vowel element is in a reader’s store of knowledge, you can have the reader attempt to read an unfamiliar word that contains that vowel element. If the reader correctly pronounces the word, you can assume she knows the vowel element contained in that word.
Teaching Phonics Knowledge
In the past, students who were learning phonics were often taught a great many rules that would supposedly help them to decode. Some programs taught students well over 100 different symbol-sound correspondences. However, research studies over many years have shown that some of the rules formerly taught had little utility. Most of the unreliable rules related to the teaching of vowel sounds. Listed here are 10 generalizations that appear to be the most reliable of the vowel rules. However, even these rules are not helpful to many struggling readers:
- If there is only one vowel letter and it appears at the end of a word, the letter usually has a long sound. Note that this is true only for one-syllable words. (Examples: go and be.)
- A single vowel in a syllable usually has a short sound if it is not the last letter in a syllable or is not followed by r. (Examples: cat and sit.)
- A vowel followed by r usually has a sound that is neither long nor short. (Examples: star and work.)
- When y is preceded by a consonant in a one-syllable word, the y usually has the sound of long i. (Examples include: by and my.) But in words of two or more syllables, the final y usually has the sound of long e. (Examples: baby and funny.)
- In words ending in vowel-consonant-e, the e is silent, and the vowel may be either long or short. Try the long sound first. (Examples: cave or have and dome and come.) As you can see, this generalization has a lot of exceptions. Fortunately, many of the exceptions are basic sight words, which should be memorized by students and thus should not cause undue confusion.
- In ai, ay, ea, oa, and ee, the first vowel is usually long and the second is silent. A common mnemonic that is used to help students remember this generalization is: “Maids may eat oak trees.” (Note, however, that ea has many exceptions, including head, great, and heard.)
- The vowel pair ow may have either the long o sound as in low or the diphthong heard in owl. (In a diphthong, the two vowel letters, in this case o and w, are both heard and make a gliding sound.)
- In au, aw, ou, oi, and oy, the vowels usually blend or form a diphthong.
- The oo sound is either long as in moon or short as in book.
- If a is the only vowel in a syllable and it is followed by l or w, then the a will usually be neither long nor short, but will have the aw sound heard in ball and awl. (When one of the letters r, w, or l comes immediately after a vowel, it usually distorts the sound of the previous vowel, making it neither long nor short. Really Weird Letters is a good mnemonic to help students remember this.)
If you study these rules for a while, you will have little difficulty coming up with exceptions to all of them. In fact, every one of these so-called “reliable” rules uses words such as either, or, usually, or may, and many of the rules also include alternative examples.
For students who have difficulty learning the symbol-sound association for vowels, the phonogram approach is often more effective. A phonogram, as defined here, is a common word family beginning with a vowel or vowel pair followed by a consonant or consonants, and sometimes ending in e. Examples of phonograms are: ake, at, ed, ime, old, and up. These word endings, and many others, almost always are pronounced the same way in the many different words in which they appear. Because of this consistency in pronunciation, students often find it much easier to learn to decode when they are taught using phonograms.
Regardless of how phonics is being taught, it is important that students have a goal of coming up with a word they recognize when they apply phonics to decode a new word in print. If the word is not one they can recognize from their oral language, students should apply an alternate sound to see if the word is now one they can recognize from their oral language. Sometimes students may correctly decode a word and not recognize it because it is not in their oral vocabulary.
© ______ 2009, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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