What’s the difference between short and long vowels?

Phonics teaching materials often talk about "short" and "long" vowels, as though the latter are just extended versions of the former.

The five vowels usually called "short" are:

  • "a" as in "cat",
  • "e" as in "red",
  • "i" as in "sit",
  • "o" as in "not",
  • "u" as in "bus".

The five vowels usually called "long", and which children are told "say their (letter) name", are:

  • "a" as in "paper",
  • "e" as in "be",
  • "i" as in "find",
  • "o" as in "go",
  • "u" as in "human".

But are we talking about sounds here, or particular spellings of these sounds?

If "short" vowels are sounds (regardless of spelling), then the following are short vowels too:

  • "a" spelt as in "plait", "salmon", and "Fahrenheit",
  • "e" spelt as in "bread", "said", "says", "any", "leopard", "heifer", "friend", and "bury",
  • "i" spelt as in "gym", "pretty", "busy", "sieve", and "women",
  • "o" spelt as in "want", "because", and "entree",
  • "u" spelt as in "front", "young", "blood", and "does".

Following the same logic, the following are also "long" vowels:

  • "a" spelt as in "make", "rain", "say", "they", "eight", "vein", "break", "fete", "cafe", "puree", "sundae", "gauge", "gaol", and "straight".
  • "e" spelt as in "bee", "eat", "field", "these", "ski", "funny", "turkey", "protein", "marine", "paediatric", and "amoeba",
  • "i" spelt as in "like", "by", "pie", "high", "type", "bye", "bonsai", "feisty", "height", "kayak", "eye", "iron", "tae kwondo", and "naive".
  • "o" spelt as in "home", "boat", "goes", "glow", "plateau", "mould", "mauve", "though", "folk", "brooch", "owe", "sew" and "Renault".
  • "u" spelt as in "use", "few", "cue", "feud", "you", "beauty", "nuisance", "ewe", "vacuum".

Try saying "capped-caped", "dinner-diner", "bellow-below" (stressing both syllables in "below"), hopping-hoping and "cutter-cuter".

The spoken versions don't just differ by length, and the written words with "short" vowels are actually longer, due to their double letters.

The terms "short" and "long" are misleading and confusing. These vowels are not short and long versions of each other.

They're completely different vowels

If you stretch out an "a" as in cat, you don't get an "a" as in paper.

"A" as in "cat" is a low front pure vowel, and "a" as in paper is a diphthong (two vowels run together) which moves from low to high in the front of the mouth.

The same goes for the other "short-long" pairs. The long" vowel "e" as in "be" is a pure vowel, but "i" as in "find" and "o" as in "go" are both diphthongs.

The sound "u" as in "human" is actually a consonant-vowel combination ("y" as in "yes" plus "u" as in "hula"), which makes sense of the spelling of "you", but not most of its other spellings. Which part of the letter "u" in "human" is representing the "y" sound, and which part the "ooh"? For learning-spelling purposes it's counterproductive to slice it so finely. However, children will often hear the "y" and want to write it, and teachers need to know that it's not a figment of childish imaginations, there really is a "y" sound in "new" (unless you speak American English).

Why people think "short" vowels are short

The "short" vowel sounds cannot occur at the end of a syllable in English. They must be followed by a consonant.

In linguistics, they are called "checked" vowels. We actually have six of them, the other one being "u/oo" as in "put" or "good".

Since we only have five vowel letters, but we have 20 vowel sounds, we have to use syllable position and letter-combining to get a bit of clarity around which sounds we mean.

Often we use vowel combinations like ai, ee, ea, ie, oa, oo, oe and ue.

Often we use a vowel plus a letter Y, W, R or L, as in ay, ey, oy, aw, ew, ow, ar, er, ir, or, ur, and sometimes al (as in calm or walk) and ol (as in yolk).

The letters Y, W, R and L otherwise represent consonants that are quite open and vowel-like.

Well, actually, the letter Y by itself is almost always a vowel spelling (as in "by", "baby" and "gym"), but not at word beginnings, where people writing "X is for xylophone" type alphabet books tend to focus.

A doubled consonant letter (ff, ss, ll, zz etc) usually indicates that the vowel before it is a "short" vowel, i.e. it's not an open syllable, it ends with a consonant (as per the "capped-caped" etc example above).

What about the other vowels?

In the dialect I speak, there are twenty vowel sounds, not ten. The missing-in-action ones in the five-short-five-long classification are:

  • "oo" as in "good", "put", "could", "wolf".
  • "ooh" as in "moon", "flute", "chew", "soup", "hula", "blue", "fruit", "to", "lose", "shoe", "sleuth". This tends to get lumped in with "long u" as it shares some spellings and is one of the two sounds in the letter name U ("y" + "ooh").
  • "ar" as in "car", "pass", "calm", "heart", "are", "baa", "aunt", "galah" and "clerk".
  • "er" as in "her", "first", "nurse", "works", "early", "journal", "were", "masseur" and "myrtle".
  • "aw" as in "for", "saw", "more", "all", "launch", "four", "warm", "door", "walk", "bought", "caught", "board", "dinosaur", "broad", "sure" and "awesome".
  • "ou" as in "loud", "cow", "drought", "Maori", "sauerkraut" and "miaow".
  • "oy" as in "boy" and "coin".
  • "air" as in "care", "hair", "there", "bear", "parent", "aeroplane", "millionaire", "their", "prayer" and "mayor".
  • "ear" as in "deer", "hear", "fierce", "here", "bacteria", "weird" and "souvenir".
  • The unstressed vowel in words of more than one syllable, or unstressed grammatical words like "a" and "the", which can be spelt using any vowel spelling. Think of the last syllable in "butter", "actor", "collar", "sofa", "centre", "flour", "tapir", "murmur" and "picture". As long as children get a solid grounding in the other vowel spellings, they can then use this knowledge to tackle the unstressed vowel, and in their "spelling voice" say "buttER", "actOR", "collAR" etc. There is no need to teach the unstressed vowel as a separate Thing, like this (this is from a THRASS chart):

Thrass chart schwa

If the other 19 vowel sounds and their spellings are not all taught systematically and well, expect some students to have a lot of trouble spelling the unstressed vowel. It's what signwriters get wrong all the time.

Adults can use the terms "short vowel" and "long vowel" among ourselves if we like, but I don't think it's helpful to teach this misleading and confusing terminology to children.

Instead, we can just say the sounds ("the sound ay", "the sound oy" etc) and teach children all the main spelling patterns for each sound, systematically and explicitly, before the end of their third year of schooling. This will be extremely bad for my business, but hey, the people at school will be among the ones giving out pills in my nursing home. I want them literate.

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7 thoughts on “What’s the difference between short and long vowels?

  1. Pingback: Reading Roundup: What's Happening in Education Lately | Top Notch Teaching

  2. Debbie

    I have to disagree with you on this one, Alison, although it is very helpful indeed the way you have outlined above just how complex vowel sounds are.

    Firstly, that there are far more ‘long’ vowel sounds than just /ai/, /ee/, /igh/, /oa/ and /yoo/.

    Secondly, that there are zillions of ‘spelling alternatives’ (letters and letter groups) for all the vowel sounds. Isn’t it a quagmire.

    But if one uses the term ‘short vowel sounds’ to mean the ‘sounds’ and not the spellings, this can be helpful even for the learners. What it means is that when the teachers refers to the ‘short vowel sounds’, he or she is just referring to a small set of sounds of /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/. There is nothing difficult in that notion at all. If the teacher is also teaching the English alphabetic code very comprehensively, with use of Alphabetic Code Charts such as the THRASS chart, or better still an Alphabetic Code Chart that shows explicitly the notion of sounds, that is using slash marks to denote the sounds, then there is plenty of clarity as to what the ‘short sounds’ means as a simple way to converse with the children.

    Secondly, by using the term ‘long vowel sounds’, this is useful to mean all the remaining vowel sounds that are NOT the designated ‘short vowel sounds’ which as I described above is a very small set of vowel sounds. This is not complicated.

    Further, if the teaching does not bother with all the diacritic marks, but simply teaches with single vowel letters amongst between consonant letters to ‘try the short vowel sound first, and if that doesn’t work, try the long vowel sound’, then a very large number of words are easily decoded.

    Of course, the teaching must also include the various spelling alternatives for the ‘short vowel sounds’ which would be outlined on the overview Alphabetic Code Chart in plain view and which should be included in any comprehensive-enough systematic phonics spelling programme.

    I totally acknowledge that various systematic phonics programmes and approaches will be very effective – so this is not a plug to suggest that only my approach and programmes will work or that they are superior.

    But I did feel the need to point out that there different ways to use, to good advantage, the terminology ‘short vowel sounds’ and ‘long vowel sounds’ which don’t get into complicated analysis and diacritics.

    I maintain, very strongly, however, that both teachers and learners (and learners’ parents or carers) are truly advantaged when they get to see the complex English alphabetic code as a CHART – the key to the code. This is why I provide various versions free to download here, which I hope you won’t mind me adding as a link to your message forum:

    http://alphabeticcodecharts.com/free_charts.html

    I also recommend that teachers of English foundational phonics and skills will show their learners a version of the Spanish Alphabetic Code Chart to contrast with the English version/s. This demonstrates very tangibly just how complex English is to teach for reading and spelling. Spanish has around 24 sounds compared to the English 44 or so sounds. Plus, English with its many spelling alternatives means that there are units of sound that should be taught which are combined phonemes as you mentioned above such as /y+oo/ and /k+s/ and /g+z/ which can amount to about 50 units of sound. Again, this should be the starting point of clarification for teacher-training. See the Spanish chart here:

    http://alphabeticcodecharts.com/3_CaD_pics__Spanish_Alphabetic_Code_Chart.pdf

    The THRASS charts are not free, as far as I’m aware, but my range of charts are. I am disappointed that you use a sub-section of the THRASS chart with no indication that I provide free charts.

    Best wishes,

    Debbie

    Reply
    1. alisonalison Post author

      Hi Debbie, Sorry to hear you don’t agree the terms “short” and “long” vowels aren’t helpful. Maybe they are to mainstream primary students, but my students are all strugglers and are often quite literal because of weak language skills, so some really do think that a “short” vowel only differs from a “long” one in time, and don’t realise they are completely different vowels, some of which can go at the end of a syllable and some of which can’t. Also some people only use the term “long” vowel to mean the vowels in “make”, “neat”, “like”, “home” and “cute” and sometimes also “moon”, and they call the rest something else, e.g. some people call the vowels in “toy” and “out” diphthongs and the vowels in “her”, “car”, “for”, “care” and “dear” r-controlled vowels. So “short vowel” and “long vowel” mean different things to different people I think, which is never very helpful.

      Did I say there were zillions of spellings for each vowel? I must correct that, thanks for the feedback. I don’t want to have people throwing their hands up and saying it’s all far too complicated to teach! I do very much like your charts and often recommend them to people, in the school holidays I am going to do a bit of an overhaul of my website (I hope. There are always too many things to do! I still haven’t done much of your training and I must do it) and I should add more links to your charts, since as you say they are free which is a very good deal indeed. I just checked the post and I’ve used the picture from the THRASS chart to illustrate the point that I don’t like the way they treat schwa, in spelling it’s not useful to say syllables with schwa vowels, it’s better to say each syllable as it is spelt to help with remembering the spelling.

      Thanks for the feedback, always helpful. Alison

      Reply
      1. Debbie

        Hi Alison,

        Thanks for your further comments.

        I agree that for tutoring and intervention work, the tutor picks up all the bits and pieces of phonics ideas/explanations/sayings (and whole language ideas) that have overwhelmed the student and clearly not worked well enough to date – and this will no doubt always be the case.

        My point is that if the teaching is code-based and consistent, and the learner is exposed to, and engaged with, an understanding of the English alphabetic code (hence my promotion of using Alphabetic Code Charts from the outset – otherwise phonics is just one, very long, linear stream of ‘new’ letter/s-sound correspondences), then a description of ‘short vowel sounds, long vowel sounds’ does not have to be a bad thing if it is defined well enough by the teacher. If learners are thinking literally – that is physically ‘short’ and ‘long’, then it is simple enough to explain that this is not what is meant. That’s what the teacher/tutor is for! The teacher provides the sounds to define, “This is what I mean when I refer to the ‘short vowel sounds /a/ /e/ /i/ /o/ /u/ – and we can see on our Alphabetic Code Chart the different letters and letter groups that are code for these vowel sounds.”

        I think you are extremely generous to promote the work of other people, Alison, you know I am one of your biggest fans and I have promoted your invaluable postings many times, particularly via the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction which is a research-informed, practice-informed international organisation. Your readers might like to see here:

        http://www.iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=17

        Reply
        1. alisonalison Post author

          Thanks, Debbie. Yes, I agree that kids need an over-arching framework/logic for understanding sounds and their spellings, and a sense of how much there is to learn and when they will be getting near the end, to keep them motivated to work and help them organise their thinking about our complex spelling system. We have a mutual admiration society I think, I’m really looking forward to doing more of your online course in the holidays. Alison

          Reply
  3. Tricia Millar

    Thanks for this, Alison. These terms (and many others) are simply not required for learning to read and spell and there are lots of other uses for our learners’ limited memories. I’ve added a little to this over on That Reading Thing’s blog.

    Reply

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