How to Teach English Learners to Pronounce 16 American-English Vowel Sounds

Why does humor almost always come first in these blog posts? To help you, the reader, to relax about the “serious educational stuff” that follows. 

So here’s how (the [mis]pronunciation of) American-English vowel sounds can be funny. Explanations with phonetic or respelling sound-symbols are included. 

Basic instruction in clear, comprehensible speech may begin with sounds (instead of the “speech music” of stress patterns and rhythm). And, just as physical fitness training can start with core strengthening, lessons in precise pronunciation can first target the core of syllables, words, phrases, and sentences—stressed vowel sounds.

So what’s fundamental to know about the American-English system of vowel sounds and spellings?

  • It’s the very existence of vowel sounds that defines syllables (the most basic units of meaning in speech). There are (at least) 16 distinguishable ways to pronounce vowels. These differ from one another in [1] where they’re said in the mouth (in the front, middle, or back), [2] how the lips are shaped (open or closed, rounded or flat), and [3] where the (flat or grooved) tongue is placed (high or low). In the first of these commonly used mouth diagrams below, Vowel Sounds numbered 1 to 16 appear in boxes with two kinds of Phonetic Sound-Symbols + Key Words. Its instructions suggest how the visual might be used. Use these downloadable diagrams that illustrate the same principles with different graphics. 

In pronunciation practice, vowel sounds may be classified as “simple” (also called “lax,” “short,” or “pure”) vs. “complex” (“tense,” “long,” “doubled,” or “diphthongized”). Those in the first grouping are most often spelled with one letter: a, e, i, o, or u. Readers will recognize simple vowels by sight but might have trouble distinguishing them aurally or orally. Complex vowels, in contrast, are much easier to say clearly but more difficult to spell.

When all 16 vowels are reviewed together, an all-purpose illustrated “Phonics Chart” may do the trick. Hearing the clear articulation of words arranged according to their vowel-sounds, learners fill in regular to alternative (and perhaps exceptional) letter-spellings. In response to visuals or meaning cues, they read their answers aloud. Follow-up consists of activities that correlate  three aspects of targeted vocabulary items: how they sound, how they look, and what they mean in context.  Try it with these typical samples:  

  • When vocabulary items are parts of phrases and longer pieces of discourse, it’s the vowel sounds of stressed (syllables in) words that need to be articulated precisely. Hearing these in context, learners choose their correct spellings. Then when they repeat, read aloud, and/or say the same sentences, they’re likely to pronounce the stressed syllables and words more clearly, louder, and longer than the surrounding verbiage. Automatically, their speech will sound more fluent—resulting in communicative comprehensibility. Here for your use is a typical exercise involving task listening, vocabulary choice, pronunciation, and meaning. It will help language learners and even new readers to speak in clear ways that prevent confusion because they make sense. 

Finally, learners can improve the clarity of their vowel-sound pronunciation through a (little known) principle of “Vowel Lengthening.” The first time they hear examples of these rules, they may be surprised—or pleased—at how much difference it makes to adjust the amount of time it takes to pronounce stressed vowel sounds. Here’s a summary with explanation and models to follow, free for you to use: 

Conventional wisdom of how to teach/learn to pronounce vowel sounds clearly often includes these tips and tricks, which have evolved into Best Practices.

  • Show diagrams of Where Vowel Sounds are Pronounced in the Mouth, including video of mouth movements. Learners can view their own pronunciation in mirrors.  

  • Isolate sounds by demonstrating & practicing their muscularity. Explain. Offer clear examples to repeat. Compare your/their (recorded) pronunciation with audio models, including those of “Minimal Pairs” (items that differ only in their vowel sounds).

  • Thoroughly explore “Phonics Correspondences”—the correlations of 16 or more vowel sounds to the letters that spell them. Work with phonetic symbols and/or dictionary sound respellings.

Here are links to only two of the many articles that recommend these steps:

So now comes the fun part. The pedagogical features of the above tips and tricks can be easily incorporated into activities that not only “teach” but that are also engaging, motivating, entertaining, efficient, and effective in accent acquisition. Here are four unique offerings:

  1. Play Vowel-Sound Bingo. How can Bingo games that contrast vowel sounds in minimal pairs & groups be especially productive in pronunciation practice? Instead of merely listening to a Caller shouting out words, players themselves can pronounce item names in turn. The reactions of their listeners will serve as natural feedback, impelling learners to improve the clarity of their articulation. You can try out this technique with materials like Sample Games 9-12: Contrasts in Vowel Sounds in the Beginning-Level Phonics & Spelling Bingo Activity & Idea Book. What else appears in these versatile excerpts? Instructions for game variations, a Summary of Vowel-Sounds Vs. Spellings Patterns, pedagogy to use as reference, and even printable and reproducible “Mastery Checks” with answers.

  2. Use Four-of-a-Kind Vowel-Sound & Spelling Cards in preparation, lesson, game, follow-up, and testing activities. You can enjoy improving your and others’ clear accents with illustrated card packs that match stressed vowel sounds in sets-of-four vocabulary items. Here’s a complete copy of the faces of Beginning-Level Vowel-Sound Cards (60 One-Syllable Words with Common Spellings for 15 Vowel Sounds) to download, cut apart, and make good use of. Relevant excerpts from the corresponding Vowel Sounds & Spellings Activity & Idea Book are included.

  3. Do vocabulary puzzles that focus on vowel sounds and spellings, like those in Beginning Phonics & Spelling Puzzles for Word-Level Pronunciation, Reading, & Vocabulary Learning. As language learners and new readers add, subtract, and otherwise manipulate letters to get answers, they’ll acquire what they need to know and do to recognize and produce American-English vowels comprehensibly. The clarity of their accents will improve as they “test the rightness” of their solutions.

  4. Whether of single sounds, phrases, or connected discourse, dictation has proven an effective technique in strengthening listening and pronunciation skills. Try it out with the vowel-centered sections of Lesson Twelve: Review of Vowels & Consonants of Practical Everyday Spelling Workbook. Pages from the PESW Teacher’s Guide & Answer Key with relevant audio script are attached.

 

The full chapters of the excerpts gifted above are part of several Authors & Editors products:

          

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About Work/Life English
Work/Life English is dedicated to advancing the lives of native English and English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers by improving their English comprehension and communication skills. Over the past 35 years, we have created a variety of fun, effective English language improvement tools for adults, young adults, older youth, youth in transition, teens, secondary students, new Americans, low-literacy learners, and anyone else who can benefit from improved English! For more information, visit www.worklifeenglish.com.


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