a and u vowel contrasts

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.

a u

am

back

badge

bag

ban

bat

cab

cad

cap

cat

dab

dad

dag

fan

gash

hag

ham

hang

hat

hatch

lag

lash

mash

mass

nab

Nan

pack

pan

rack

rag

ram

ran

rang

rash

rat

sack

San (as in San Francisco)

sang

sap

shack

tab

tack

tag

yam

um

buck

budge

bug

bun

but

cub

cud

cup

cut

dub

dud

dug

fun

gush

hug

hum

hung

hut

hutch

lug

lush

mush

muss (as in "don't muss your hair up")

nub

nun

puck

pun

ruck (Australian football position)

rug

rum

run

rung

rush

rut

suck

sun

sung

sup

shuck

tub

tuck

tug

yum

 

3 thoughts on “a and u vowel contrasts

  1. Deborah

    Thank you for the list. Very helpful. Just a note about struggling decoders. The a is nasalized when followed by an m or n. It is technically a different sound and can be difficult for students with dyslexia or for students who struggle with decoding. I tend to teach them as a unit, that is am and an.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Deborah, whether to teach allophones separately is an interesting question, I was working with a child this morning who insisted the “oa” in “foal” and “goal” is a different sound from the one in “boat” and “coast”. My usual response is that yes, it does sound a bit different, liquid sounds like “l” and nasals like “n” do colour the preceding vowels, but we class these two allophones as the same phoneme. A phoneme is a concept/construct and each time each phoneme is produced in a word it is slightly different. I’d rather stick to the single phoneme and single grapheme level rather than shifting up to onset-rime level, because our writing system is based on phonemes and graphemes not onsets and rimes. However, it sounds like you know your phonology, and are not trying to teach entirely at an onset-rime level, just doing this to help your students get past confusion resulting from the way coarticulation works.

      Reply

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