Spelling and Vowels Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 28, 2011


Without vowels, we wouldn't have words. In this lesson, you'll learn about the long and short sounds that vowels make, along with the schwa and how to handle two-vowel combinations.

THE ALPHABET CONTAINS five vowels: a, e, i, o, and u. Although there are far fewer vowels than there are consonants, vowels are extremely important for forming words. In fact, they are so important that the consonant y is sometimes used as a vowel. That's because vowels are necessary for pronunciation. A vowel is defined as a sound that is produced without blocking the passage of air from the throat. In contrast, a consonant is a sound that is made by blocking the passage of air. For now, suffice it to say that without both vowels and consonants, our words wouldn't make many sounds.

TIP: When you were learning vowels in school, you may have been taught the phrase a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. Although y is not officially a vowel, it is sometimes enlisted to serve as one. In those cases, the y makes the sound of a vowel; you might say that it is technically a vowel in those cases. For example, the words why, my, hymn, lymph, sylph, and shy don't contain one of the five vowels but they do contain a y that is making the sound of a vowel.

So, be sure to look out for y appearing in words without any other vowels. The letter y will undoubtedly be there making the sound of a vowel and that can throw you off (spelling lymph, for example, as limph).

Vowel Sounds 

Since there are only a handful of vowels, they work extra hard and make two types of sounds: short and long. Think about the five vowels and the sounds they make. If you pronounce words slowly, you'll notice that the vowels make different sounds. The letter a, for example, makes one sound in the words game and late and another sound in the words cat and lack. In the first pair of words, the sound is a long a and in the second pair, it is a short a. We use the terms short and long to describe the length of time the vowel sounds spend in the throat. A short a spends less time being sounded than a long a. The following list gives some examples of words with long and short vowels. (Remember, long vowels also make the same sound as the name of the vowel.)


The Schwa 

The schwa is a vowel sound that is neither short nor long; it can be made by any of the vowels. Because all vowels can make the schwa sound, it is the root of many spelling errors. The schwa is defined as an unstressed and toneless vowel sound. The dictionary shows it as an upside-down e; like this: Words that contain the schwa include fir, major, butter, burr, calendar, about, the, pencil, bishop, supply, adult. As you can see from that list of words, the schwa makes a kind of uh sound, and all the vowels can represent it.

Since all the vowels can make the same schwa sound, you cannot rely on pronunciation to guide you with spelling words that contain the schwa. Instead, you will need to memorize the words. In some instances, you can rely on your knowledge of prefixes and suffixes to guide you. Knowing how to spell suffixes containing the schwa will help you to spell words that contain them correctly. Still, most words that contain the schwa sound—like many words in the English language—require you to memorize, plain and simple.

Vowel Combinations 

In mnemonic we learned the vowel combinations:

  • When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.

This handy mnemonic helps you to remember which letter to write first in two-vowel combinations. In words with two-vowel combinations, the first vowel usually will be pronounced with a long vowel sound, while the second one will remain silent. If you know that a particular word has a vowel combination, but you aren't sure which vowel comes first and which one comes second, this rule can be useful. Following the rule, you would pronounce the word brain, for example, and by hearing that the long a is pronounced, but not the i, you would know to spell the word using the ai combination.

Here are a few examples of words with two-vowel combinations that contain either a long a, e, i, o, or u sound:


Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Spelling and Vowels Practice Exercises

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