Today at school I was working with some students who persistently confuse the vowel sounds "a" as in "cat" and "u" as in "cut".
Not being sure of the difference, they often write a letter that's like a cross between "a" and "u", an "a" with the top down. Which is a clever, 2-bob-each-way strategy, but when typing there is no such letter, so they need to iron the difference between these two sounds and letters out.
Lots of learners confuse these sounds/letters, partly because one of the first words most children are taught to read is the indefinite article "a", as in "a book" and "a cat".
Teachers and parents usually pronounce this word like "u" as in "cup", though it would be a lot less confusing for beginners if they used the stressed pronunciation "ay" for this word (see this previous blog post for more).
Once kids have learnt to say "u" when they see the letter "a", they are logically inclined to read "bat" as "but" and "fun" and "fan".
Can't blame them for that, especially if they are also meeting lots of other words with an unstressed "a", like "ago", "across", "sofa" and "umbrella".
To complicate matters, the students I was working with today came here as refugees and are still learning English, plus they are learning Italian at school, in which the five vowel letters A, E, I, O and U are pronounced more like "u", "e", "i", "o" and "oo". So they are pretty darn confused about the difference between "a" and "u".
Writing a and u vowel contrasts
I often dictate words which sound and are spelt identically except for the sounds/letters "a" and "u" to such students, to help them learn the difference.
They write the words in two columns, saying each sound as they write, and thinking about the difference between them. I choose words they are likely to know, say each in a sentence to show its meaning, and once we have good-sized lists I ask the students to read them aloud (usually in the next lesson).
After school today, I wrote out a long list of words suitable for this activity, so that these students can keep working on it during the week with their integration aide.
Then I realised that I'm always writing out this list for integration aides and parents, and I should save myself some time by writing it as a blog post, which I can print out or refer people to as necessary, and others can use too.
So here it is: one-syllable, two or three-sound words with regular spellings which contrast the vowels "a" and "u". I hope you find it useful in helping learners to tell the difference between these two sounds, and consistently write the correct vowel letters.
San (as in San Francisco)
muss (as in "don't muss your hair up")
ruck (Australian football position)