English vowels can be confusing. It can be hard to tell when to use which letter when spelling, and the differences in pronunciation are sometimes small and difficult to hear.
What Are Vowels?
In the English language, the letters “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” “u” and sometimes “y”are called vowels.
When you speak, you let out air through your mouth. Vowels make the sounds that come when the air leaving your mouth isn’t blocked by anything (like your teeth or your tongue). They are formed by moving your lips to different shapes.
The rest of the letters in the alphabet are called consonants. When speaking, consonants have sounds that are made by partially or fully blocking the air flow.
To form words, we put vowels together with consonants in a specific order. Here’s a simple example. Read this out loud:
Easy enough, right? The vowel “a” is placed between the consonants “c” and “t” to form the word for a small furry animal with ears. Now try reading this out loud:
You could say that many different ways:
So how you pronounce the letter “a” depends on the letters around it.
Finally, try to read this:
That’s not as easy, is it? If you put a different vowel between the “c” and the “t,” the word gets a different meaning (like “cot” or “cut”). Consonants and vowels need each other!
The Many Ways to Pronounce English Vowel Sounds
A vowel’s position in a word can affect the way you pronounce it. You can memorize some pronunciation rules or learn by finding patterns in words.
All vowels have at least two pronunciations: a long sound and a short sound. A long vowel is the name of the vowel (for example, long “a” is “ay” like in the word “say”). A short vowel is a shorter sound (for example, short “a” sounds like “æ” from the word “cat”).
Words are split up into syllables, which are uninterrupted bits of sound that form the word. Each syllable has one vowel sound. You can find the syllables in a word by placing your hand below your chin and saying it out loud. Every time your chin touches your hand, that’s a syllable. You can double check with sites like “How Many Syllables.”
Here are five of the most common rules for vowel pronunciation:
1. When a word or syllable ends in a consonant and has only one vowel, that vowel is short.
2. When a word ends in “e,” the “e” is silent (not read out loud), and the vowel that comes before it is long.
Examples: bake, file, rope
3. When a syllable has two vowels next to each other, the first is usually long and the second short.
Examples: pain, boat, grow
4. When a syllable ends in one vowel, that vowel is usually long.
Examples: open, unit, paper
5. Many times, these rules don’t work! There are many exceptions(times when the rules are broken). Sometimes the only way to learn something is to practice and memorize it.
However you decide to learn, knowing the rules and how to actually make the sounds are both important to become fluent.
8 Unique Ways to Practice English Vowel Sounds
We know it can be hard to memorize rules and pronunciations, though. But don’t worry, that’s why we’re sharing these games—to make the learning process easier for you. Here are some fun ways to learn and improve your knowledge of English vowel sounds:
1. Pronunciation Mazes
A pronunciation maze is a worksheet filled with words. To complete the sheet, you have to get from a word on top to a word on the bottom, by finding words with the same vowel sounds.
Here is a pronunciation maze for the sound “u” as in the word “but.”
Here is another maze for the sound “oo” as in “book.”
Here’s a maze for the “o” “ou” and “u” sounds.
Here’s another maze.
You can find many other mazes online by searching Google or Google image for “pronunciation maze.”
What you can learn: Vowels change their sound based on where they are in the word and the letters that surround them. Doing a pronunciation maze makes you aware of vowel sounds, and helps you hear the difference between “bit” and “beat,” for example.
If you pay close attention, you can begin to notice some patterns—like that words with the letters “ea” in the middle usually make a similar sound (but not always!). That means the next time you see a word that has the letters “ea,” you might be able to pronounce it correctly without even knowing what it means.
2. Shadow Reading
Find a short clip from a movie or tv show or even your favorite commercial. Then turn on the subtitles and watch the clip twice. On the first time, just watch silently. On the second time, say the words along with the clip. Try to match the pronunciation, intonation (the rise and fall of the voice) and speed of the audio. This exercise is called “shadow reading.”
What you can learn: Speaking fluently is not just about knowing the right words and grammar. It’s about knowing how to say them, too. Speaking with the clip will help you practice speaking faster without pausing, and pronounce words correctly.
3. Tongue Twisters
Tongue twisters are a series of words that repeat the same sounds a lot, which makes them difficult to say fast. You can find a list of excellent vowel-focused tongue twisters here and here.
Choose a tongue twister and say it out loud. Say it quite slowly at first, and focus on pronouncing the vowels correctly. As you get more comfortable, say the tongue twister faster and faster. How fast can you go before your tongue gets all twisted up?
Use your phone to record audio of your English tutor saying the tongue twister slowly, and then faster. Use the audio to practice.
What you can learn: You’ve heard it before—practice, practice, practice! There’s no better way to learn than to practice. Tongue twisters are a fun way to practice saying certain sounds. The better you get at the tongue twisters, the better you will get at pronouncing different English vowel sounds correctly.
4. Silent Film
Find a movie clip or any other short video that has actual people speaking. Before pressing “play,” turn off the sound and remove the subtitles. Watch the clip and try to understand what the people are saying by the way their lips move.
What you can learn: Sound might come from the throat, but our mouths are where those sounds are shaped into letters and words. The shape of your mouth and location of your tongue when you speak are important for pronouncing words correctly.
Paying attention to the shape of peoples’ mouths when they speak can make it easier to understand and repeat the same sounds. Watching people speaking (with the sound off) makes you more aware of mouth shapes, and can help you understand how to pronounce the same sounds correctly.
The “u” sound in the word “rebuke” and the “oo” sound in the word “book” might seem similar, for example, but if you watch someone say the two words you’ll see the difference (your lips have to be more curled to make the “u” sound).
5. “Reading” the Dictionary
The next time you look up a new word in a dictionary, try to say the word out loud first, pronouncing as well as you can.
Then listen to the dictionary pronunciation of the word, say it together with the audio, and finally say it out loud on your own. Come as close as you can to what you hear.
What you can learn: You probably use an online dictionary or a dictionary app when you’re looking up new English words. If you only use the word and definition, then you’re missing out on some of the best features of online dictionaries!
Most online dictionaries have an audio button, which will say the word out loud for you. Some online dictionaries—like the Cambridge English Dictionary—even have a different audio button for American and British English, so you can hear the word in both accents.
Another useful feature of any dictionary (physical book or online) is the pronunciation guide. It might take a bit of time, but it’s useful to understand the dictionary pronunciation guide. This guide shows you how to pronounce any word in the dictionary. Now you’ll always know how to pronounce a word!
6. Minimal Pairs
Minimal pairs are words that sound the same except for one sound change, like “lice” and “rice” or “sit” and “seat.”
For this exercise, you’ll need a list of minimal pairs (you can find a good one here). Practice or record yourself saying the words out loud, speaking clearly and exaggerating the sounds (making them sound bigger and more important than they actually are).
What you can learn: Sometimes it’s difficult to hear the difference between certain vowel sounds. You can make it easier for yourself to hear the difference by practicing saying similar words. By making the sounds larger, you can hear and feel the difference better.
7. Read Dr. Seuss
Dr. Seuss is a well-known children’s book author. His books are meant for kids to learn to speak (and read) well by using simple and catchy rhymes. Some Dr. Seuss books are an excellent way to learn vowel pronunciation!
The three best Dr. Seuss books for learning vowel pronunciation are “Oh Say Can You Say,” “Fox in Socks,” and “Hop on Pop.” Read them out loud!
Need some help? You can find audiobook versions of the books on Audible, or just search YouTube for read-alouds of them. Here’s a reading of “Oh Say Can You Say,” here’s one of “Fox in Socks,” and here’s one of “Hop on Pop,” for example.
What you can learn: Children’s books are great learning tools no matter what age you are. The words, rhythms and rhymes in Dr. Seuss books make them easy to remember and read. Since the books are meant to teach kids in the simplest way possible, you’ll be learning useful topics like long and short vowels, different vowel sounds and spelling patterns… all without even realizing it!
8. Song Games
There are a number of children’s songs that help teach different vowels. Listen to and try to sing along with songs like “Apples and Bananas” and “The Frog Doesn’t Wash His Feet.”
These songs, and others like them, change the vowel sounds in words. This results in many nonsense words, like “benene” instead of “banana.” This is an effective method to learn vowel sounds because the rest of the word doesn’t change—so you can focus on the vowel sounds instead.
What you can learn: It’s important to know the right pronunciation of a word, but just knowing how to make the different vowel sounds can help you speak correctly.
Happy learning! For more help, see me for a trial lesson!