This week’s discussion on vowel sounds continues with the focus on the different sounds (phonemes) in the English language.
The English spelling system can be difficult to master. One of the main reasons for this is because of all the different vowel sounds in English. To make matters worse, each of these sounds has many different spelling options.
These vowel sounds are particularly difficult for individuals who struggle with phonemic awareness and individuals who do not speak English as their first language.
It is important for educators to understand the different vowel sounds and how they are produced so they can help their students who have difficulty with them.
There are 12 different vowel sounds in the English language, but this number may vary depending on what dialect of English you speak and what source you refer too.
In any discussion about the sounds in a language it is important to discuss how the sounds are produced.*
English vowel sounds all begin with the passage of air from the lungs through the vocal tract where, in most cases, the vocal cords vibrate (You should be able to feel this vibration if you place your fingers lightly over your Larynx/Adam’s Apple).
There are then four things that can be done to manipulate the sound coming out:
- The openness of the mouth (closed, half-closed, half-open and open).
- Whether the lips are rounded.
- When producing vowel sounds, the speaker’s lips are either rounded for the sounds /o, u, ʊ, ɔ,/ and /oi/ or they are not.
- The position of the tongue in the mouth.
- As you speak, your tongue changes position in your mouth. It is It easiest to describe the tongues position while you speak by using two dimensions: the height (high, mid, low) and the location (front, center, back).
- The degree of muscle tension found in the neck, mouth, tongue, and lips; the vowel is either considered tense or lax. Some examples of tense and lax vowel pairs are feet – fit, book – boot, mate – met.
- For tense vowels, the larynx tends to rise while the muscles in the neck tend to bulge.
- Individuals who speak English as an additional language often struggle with producing and distinguishing the difference between vowel pairs whose only difference is tension /i/ – /I/, /u/ – /ʊ/, /e/ & /ɛ/.
- Did you know that single-syllable words in English do not end in lax vowels?
The vowel trapezoid is a chart that shows the relative positions of the tongue in the mouth along with the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols for the different vowel phonemes in the English Language.
Vowel sounds are typically considered to be either a monothong or a diphthong.
A monothong is a vowel sound that is produced using a single steady state of the vocal tract.
The vowel sounds in these words are considered monothongs: pit, met, paw, got, but, and rush.
A diphthong is a vowel sound with the pronunciation of the vowel sound changes the mouths shape.
The vowel sounds in these words are considered to be diphthongs: cow, toy, and buy.
In written form, diphthongs are often represented by two vowel letters (graphemes). In these cases, the sound of the diphthong is almost always distinct from the vowel sound represented by the first grapheme.
*This discussion will not get too technical and is meant to be a basic introduction into how sounds are produced.
Bartsch, S. (2014). Linguistics glossary: Vowels. Retrieved from: http://www.linguisticsweb.org/doku.php?id=linguisticsweb:glossary:linguistics_glossary:vowels
Henry, M. (2010). Unlocking Literacy: Effective decoding & spelling instruction (2nded.). Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.
Venezky, R. L. (1999). The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
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