Vowels: Spelling Review Study Guide
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:
The five vowels—a, e, i, o, and u—are very important letters. Almost every syllable of every word in the dictionary contains one of these five letters. Notice I said almost. I'm sure you learned a long time ago that there are some words, like why, shy, and rhythm, that use y as a vowel. Vowels are so important to pronunciation that we have to draft a consonant to do their job when they can't be found!
A vowel is defined as "a sound that is produced without blocking the passage of air from the throat." You can open your mouth and make all the vowel sounds while keeping your tongue and lips motionless. Try it! By contrast, now try keeping your mouth open and saying a consonant, like b, f, or m. Any luck? I didn't think so! Even trained ventriloquists ( entertainers who project their voices so that the sound appears to come from elsewhere, usually a dummy or puppet) can't get around the basic science of how we make sounds. With practice, a ventriloquist can train herself to move her lips very little when speaking, but she can never make these sounds come entirely from her throat.
FUEL FOR THOUGHT
IT'S NOT NECESSARY that an English word contain an a, e, i, o, or u, but it is important that every word have at least the sound of one of these letters. In the words in which y is used as a vowel, the y makes a long ī sound (my) or a short i sound (hymn).
There is, as always, a tiny handful of exceptions. Take sh, for instance. You probably know exactly what is meant when you read the letters sh. We've all heard our teachers and parents use this noise to quiet us down. Although it is consistently written the same way, sh belongs to that strange class of words known as interjections. Interjections are words used to express emotions; they are not grammatically related to the other parts of a sentence. Psst, the sound you might make if you had to tell someone a secret, is another interjection that has no vowels. Although interjections are technically words, they can disobey the rules because they represent sounds, not parts of speech.
Trivia fans in the reading audience should note that there are two other words in some dictionaries that have no vowels—cwm (pronounced [küm]: a glacial basin without walls) and crwth (pronounced [krüth]: a musical instrument). These words originally came from Welsh, where w sometimes makes a vowel sound. Chances are very strong that you will never have any reason to use either of these words in conversation, but they can save your life in a game of Scrabble!
There are two main types of vowels: short and long. The letter a is pronounced one way in the word cat and another way in the word late. The a in cat is considered a short vowel, while the a in late is considered a long vowel. Technically, short vowels are sounded in the throat for a shorter amount of time than long vowels. It might be easier to remember that long vowels are vowels that seem to say their own names. Examples of long vowels are a as in game and tale, e as in feed or scene, i as in flight or pine, o as in bone or toe, and u as in compute or unicorn. Short vowels, on the other hand, include the sound a as in cat or acid, e as in bet or felt, i as in wig or bit, o as in hog or monster, and u as in rug or tumble.
THERE IS a third type of vowel sound that is neither short nor long, and it has a very strange name: the schwa (shwä). The schwa is what a vowel sounds like when it is unstressed in an unstressed syllable. This is represented in the pronunciation charts with the strange upside-down e that looks like this: ə. The ə is found in words like about, adult, the, pencil, bishop, and supply. Because all vowels can make the ə sound, it is actually the most common vowel sound in the English language.
Schwa vowels often lead to spelling errors, because every letter can make this same sound. For instance, nothing can be heard in the pronunciation of the word calendar to indicate that it should end in -ar; the exact same sound can be heard, spelled differently, in the words butter, fir, major, and burr. In some cases, an understanding of suffixes can help you determine spelling of schwa vowels but not always. Be on the lookout for words like calendar that might just need to be memorized.
The way to determine whether a vowel will be long or short is to look at the consonants surrounding it. Generally, when a single vowel is found by itself in a short word or syllable (three or four letters), it will make the short sound. You can go through the alphabet letter by letter and come up with numerous examples: bad, bed, big, bog, bud, and so on.
There are two instances in which vowels are long: in vowel + consonant + silent e combinations, such as bake, bike, and poke, and when the vowel appears at the end of a single-syllable word, as in be, no, and go.
"Now hold on there, buddy," you might say to me. "Just off the top of my head, I can think of plenty of words in which the vowels don't make either of these sounds. What about star, for instance? That a sounds nothing like the a in apple or the a in game! What about fierce, or born, or pure?"
That is a great question, and I am happy to report that I have an answer. Certain combinations of vowels and consonants can change the sound of the vowel. The a sound in star, for instance, is created by the combination of a and r. This same combination can be found in many other words such as car, bar, harm, and yard. The letter r is a powerful force in pronunciation, and vowels that are coupled with this letter have their own special category called r-controlled vowels.
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