Decoding Vowels

posted in: Reading, Syllabification | 4

The vowels are ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’, ‘u’ and sometimes ‘y’ acts as a vowel (‘y’ acts as a vowel when it sounds like a vowel – sunny, sky, pyramid).  A short vowel is the basic common sound given to each of the vowels: /a/-apple, /e/-egg, /i/-insect, /o/-octopus, /u/-umbrella. However, each of these letters can also be pronounced as the name of the letter (a long vowel sound): /ay/-table, /ee/-pretend, /ie/-triangle, /oa/-protect, /ue/ or /you/-scrutiny, music.

The questions are: When children are trying to decode a word they are unable to automatically recognise –

  • How do they know whether to pronounce it as a short or a long vowel sound?
  • What strategies can you use to help them in this decision making process?[divider]

The vowel will definitely be read as a short vowel sound when it is followed by:

  • Double consonants (e.g., matter, beggar, swimmer, dollar, running).
  • ‘tch’ (e.g., match, stretch, itch, crotchet, hutch).
  • ‘dge’ (e.g., badge, edge, ridge, lodge, budgerigar).
  • A consonant and the ‘ble’, ‘dle’, ‘fle’, ‘gle’, ‘ple’ or ‘tle’ pattern (e.g., handle, stumble, whistle, babble, little).

The vowel will most commonly be read as a short vowel sound when it is:

  • In a one syllable word (bat, step, spin, doll, skull).
  • But there are exceptions, especially for words containing ‘u’ (e.g., pull, bush) and when ‘i’ in particular is followed by the consonants ‘nd’, ‘ld’, ‘gh’ and ‘gn’ (e.g., mind, child, light, sign).
  • Followed by two or more consonants (e.g., magnet, pest, ticket, cold, umbrella).
  • Except for words containing the ‘ble’, ‘ckle’, ‘dle’, ‘fle’, ‘gle’, ‘tle’ and ‘ple’ pattern in which the first consonant in these patterns has not been doubled (e.g., table, bible) and there is no other consonant after the vowel but before the ‘le’ pattern. Click here for more information about the ‘le’ pattern.
  • But there are exceptions (e.g., strange, light, post).

The vowel will most commonly be read as a long vowel sound when it is:

  • The final letter in a prefix (e.g., pre-predict, de-depress, tri-tricycle, re-redo, pro-proactive, di-digraph, bi-binoculars).
  • However, it is not always easy for children to determine if the first few letters are a prefix or not (e.g., predator, recognise, product, demonstrate).
  • Followed by one consonant and the next letter is a vowel (e.g., music, fatal, modem, sinus).
  • But there are a lot of exceptions (e.g., manual, punish, odour).
  • The first vowel in a split vowel, which is when each of the vowels represent a different sound (e.g., lion, fluent, chaotic).

Be aware that all the vowels can be pronounced in other ways in addition to the short and long vowel sound (e.g., ‘a’  /e/-many, /or/-ball, /o/-watch, /ar/-bath, /u/-ago).

You also need to be aware of vowels ‘controlled’ by other consonants (e.g.,ar-car, er-herb, ir-girl, or-fork, ur-church, ow-mow/cow, aw-paw). Click here for more information about the Power of ‘r’.

  • But there are exceptions (parody, very, conspiracy, moral, rural – most commonly when the next letter is a vowel).
  • Note that when the vowel is followed by double ‘r’ it reverts to the short vowel sound (e.g., sparrow, berry, mirror, sorry, hurricane).

If children are trying to decode an unknown word and they have poor reading skills and/or poor phonic and orthographic knowledge, trying to remember or even learn the above information is problematic.

Consequently, I suggest teaching students a simple syllabification strategy:

  • Put a dot under the first vowel.
  • Place a line after the next consonant (unless the vowel is followed by double consonants or the following two consonants represent one sound and then the line will be placed after these two letters).
  • Join letters representing one sound (e.g., ai, ee, er).
  • Decode that syllable assuming the vowel is a short vowel sound (unless it has been already joined with another letter such as ai, ee, ar).
  • Repeat these four steps until the whole word is decode.
  • Join the syllables together.

If the word doesn’t make sense using a short vowel sound, then try the long vowel sound. If that doesn’t make sense, then try one of the alternative ways of pronouncing the vowel.

If the word is in the children’s oral vocabulary, they are very good at ‘tweaking’ the word and pronouncing it correctly.

4 Responses

  1. annette siksei

    Thank you for this. I will try it when school starts and tell you how it went afterwards. I teach third grade who learn English as second language

    • Lillian

      It will be interesting to hear how it applies to students learning English as an additional language.

  2. Rosemary

    Would be great to have a picture example of your syllable division strategy below this text. Enjoying using your materials Lillian