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Short and Long Vowel Sounds

One of the challenging parts about learning to read and write in English is that one letter can make different sounds depending on its context. Vowels, which are generally understood as the letters A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y, are particularly complex. Each vowel has at least two possible sounds it can make. Short vowel sounds are the sound the ‘a’ makes in apple, the sound the ‘e’ makes in bed, the sound the ‘i’ makes in sit, the sound the ‘o’ makes in otter, and the sound the ‘u’ makes in umbrella. Long vowel sounds are the sounds of the vowel’s name, like the a sound in cake. As you teach children to read and spell, you will need to teach them the rules regarding when vowels make which sounds, and you will need to give them plenty of practice working with these distinctions.

Recalling the Rules

Many of us learned the vowel rules so long ago that we could use a refresher before we teach them to children! Here are some of the most important rules about vowel sounds:

  1. When there is one vowel in a word and it’s not at the end of the word, it will make the short vowel sound, as in the ‘o’ in ‘lot.’
  2. When there is one vowel at the end of a word, it will make a long vowel sound, as in the ‘o’ in ‘go.’
  3. When there is an ‘e’ at the end of the word, the vowel preceding the ‘e’ will make the long sound, and the ‘e’ will be silent, as in the ‘a’ and ‘e’ in ‘cake.’
  4. When there are two different vowels together in the word, they will make the long sound of the first vowel, as in the ‘ai’ in ‘rain.’
  5. When there is one vowel following by two of the same consonant, the vowel will make its short sound, as the ‘u’ in ‘running.’
  6. When there is two of the same vowel, the vowel makes its long vowel sound, with the exception of the double ‘o’ (as normal in the ‘ee’ in meet, or as in the exception ‘oo’ in ‘book’).

Practicing Through Play

That’s a lot of rules for kids to learn! With children learning to read or write, you will generally want to teach these rules one at a time and give children plenty of opportunities to practice. You might even spend an entire week focusing your literacy instruction on one particular short vowel sound. One of the best ways to get children to practice phonics is by using playful strategies. For instance, you can:

  • Give your students word lists or pictures to sort based on whether they have short or long vowel sounds.
  • Let your children color pictures that help them remember the rules and hang the posters around your classroom.
  • Recite poetry and short passages as a class, drawing attention to the use of particular rules.
  • Play a version of bingo where, when students read their winning words back, they are required to say whether the word uses a short or a long vowel.
  • Have students use their fingers to spell in the air (words with short vowels and long vowels) chanting the different sounds that the same vowel can make.

In general, the more playful opportunities you can give students to practice, the more comfortable they will become with the norms of phonics.

Practicing With Literature

In general, students learn phonics best when they practice in context, and particularly when they see the rules they have learned applied in the context of quality literature. You can call students’ attention to short and long vowel sounds in literature in several ways.


When you choose your read-aloud books, be thoughtful about the words and word patterns present in the book. Once students have a chance to enjoy the story and discuss it together, call their attention to particular sounds in words.

Shared readings

When you read big books or projected passages along with your class, show your students words that use the vowel rules you have been working on together.

Guided readings

When you read short books along with small groups, select books that repeatedly use the same vowel sounds and use the books as a way for students to practice vowel sound rules.

Lesson Summary

Learning about the different sounds that the vowels A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y can make is a very important aspect of learning phonics. The long vowel sounds are the same sound as the name of the letter and the short vowel sounds are the other sounds that a letter can make that’s not the same as the letter. When students know how to decode vowels, it helps them tremendously with understanding words. Before teaching your students the rules for reading vowel sounds, make sure you are familiar with the rules. Then teach your students about vowel sounds in playful ways and through the context of literature.

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