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Did You Know that English Has 15 Vowel Sounds and 28 Common Ways to Write Them?

Since English is a vowel-rich language, understanding the definitions of vowels and consonants will help students, even very young students, unlock the code behind words and will eliminate confusion.

How To Teach Vowels

Young child joyfully smiling with their mouth wide open, preparing to make a vowel sound.

Vowels are sounds that are not blocked by the mouth, tongue, or teeth.

Have students say the sound /ă/. Feel how the mouth opens and how nothing is blocking the air. Say the sound /ī/. Feel how the mouth is open.

Singing loudly with mouth open

Vowels are sounds that can be sung.

Sing the sound /ŏ/. Sing the sound /ĭ/. Notice how when we sing songs, we are actually singing the vowels!

Whispering softly and laughing loudly.

Vowels are sounds that can be made louder and softer.

Place your hand on your chin and quietly say the sound /ō/, then make it louder and louder. Notice how your mouth opens bigger when you say the sound louder. Loudly say the sound /ū/, then make it quieter and quieter. Notice how when you say the sound quieter, you open your mouth less.

How To Teach Consonants

Elderly man making silly face pointing to his with closed mouth blocking sounds

Consonants are sounds that are blocked by the lips, tongue, or teeth.

Have students say the sound /m/. Discuss how the lips are blocking the air. Say the sound /t/. Feel together how the tongue touches the top of the mouth and blocks the air. Say the sound /th/. Feel how the tongue and teeth are blocking the air.

Adult with mouth closed, not singing.

Consonants are sounds that cannot be sung.

Say the sound /s/. Notice how this sound cannot be sung. Say the sound /p/. Do not add an /u/ to the end; /u/ is a vowel. Notice how /p/ cannot be sung.

Young boy with hands open

Consonants are sounds that cannot be made louder and softer.

Try to make the sound /z/ louder and softer. It cannot be done. Say the sound /n/. Try to make it louder and softer. You cannot!


Did You Know?

“I” has a consonant sound, /y/. It is found in words like junior, onion and familiar.

Tips for Teaching Consonants and Vowels

1️⃣ Teach Students the Definitions and Not To Memorized Lists

When students learn that a vowel is a sound that can be sung and made louder and softer, they can test a sound to determine whether it is a consonant or a vowel instead of memorizing every possible vowel.

2️⃣ Have Students Do Experiments

Ask students to say a sound and decide if it is a consonant or a vowel. Guide them with questions. Can they sing it? Can they make the sound louder or softer? Is their mouth blocked or unblocked? For an extra added element of fun do these experiments in the mirror!

3️⃣ Test All the Sounds!

When a phonogram has more than one sound, test all of the sounds. For example, Y says /ĭ-ī-ē-y/. By singing the sounds and making them louder and softer, discover that /ĭ/, /ī/ and /ē/ are vowel sounds. Discover that /y/ is a consonant sound! That is right! Y can be either a consonant or a vowel, depending on which sound it is saying!

4️⃣ Ask Students To Test the Sounds of Both Single-Letter and Multi-Letter Phonograms

In addition to testing the sounds of a-z, ask the students to test sounds of multi-letter phonograms such as OY, which says /oi/. Discover together that /oi/ can be made louder and softer. It can be sung. The mouth is unblocked. The sound /oi/ is a vowel sound!

5️⃣ Teach Students the R-Controlled Vowels

There are 6 commonly used R-controlled vowels: ar, er, ear, ir, or, ur. Help students understand these sounds by first examining the consonant /r/ sound together. Discuss how /r/ is blocked by the tongue. Discover that you can sing /r/, but you can't make it louder and softer easily. The /r/ sound in English is a consonant because it is blocked, but it is also a bit like a vowel. When an R is next to a vowel, it colors the vowel sound as in car, her, earn, first, corn and turn.


By teaching students to understand how English works rather than memorizing oversimplifications, we empower them to further unlock the code!

Learn More About Schwa »