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Long and Short Vowels

A, E, I Owe You an Explanation

The issue of long and short vowel sounds often leads to confusion for many parents and children alike. Ever wonder what makes a long vowel different from a short vowel? Well, here it is... A long E and a short E. =)

Kidding aside, why does the letter A sometimes make the /a/ "ah" sound, and other times, it makes the /aye/ sound. Why does the A make the /aye/ sound in TABLE, but make the /a/ "ah" sound in TAB? Why does letter O make the "oh" sound in HOPE, and make the /o/ "awe" sound in HOP? These are two different examples of long and short vowel sounds.

1) TABLE and TAB are called open and closed syllables making the vowel long or short.

2) HOPE and HOP have (or not have) what's called the "silent E", which is a spelling convention where a letter E makes the preceding vowel a long vowel.

Once you understand the above 2 ideas, you'll be able to handle long and short vowel sounds from almost all words, well, almost. There are also other long vowel sounds that are made by a combination of vowels. For example, AI making the /aye/ sound, or EE and EA making the /yee/ sound, or OA making the /oh/ sound, but that's really beyond the scope of this discussion, and begins to deal with diphthongs. Here, we're just concerned about how to figure out whether a single vowel letter is long or short. So let's start with the silent E!

Long Vowel Sounds With the Silent E

In English, in words where you have "vowel-consonant-silent E", the silent E will make the preceding vowel long - that is, the silent E makes the preceding vowel say its name. How I like to teach this to my students is that I tell my students:

"The silent E here, jumps over one letter, and then makes the A say its name."


"...makes the I say its name."


"...makes the U say its name." etc...

So basically, the long sound of a vowel sounds exactly like its name. So the silent E makes...

This is a fairly simple and straightforward way of teaching the silent E. Here are some example words where the silent E makes the preceding vowel long:

Long Vowels in Open Syllable Words

In English, there is a closed syllable, and an open syllable. A syllable is "closed" if the vowel is followed by a consonant. For example:

For these closed syllable words, the vowel has a consonant following it, so they are short vowel sounds. An open syllable, on the other hand, has nothing following after the vowel. The simplest examples are the 2 letter words:

Here are a few slightly more complex examples:

This last example "ROTATE" is a combination of an open syllable plus a silent E - so both vowels are long.

Now, the one potential difficulty a young child, or an ESL learner might have with open syllable words is that if you did NOT know the word to begin with (ie. word not in one's vocabulary), HOW do you know if the word has an open syllable or not? Knowing whether a word has an open syllable is predicated upon the reader KNOWING HOW TO PRONOUNCE THE WORD, and KNOWS THE WORD ALREADY.

At least this is what I believe to be the case.

For example, let's put ourselves in the shoes of an ESL learner. Perhaps this person has never seen the word ROTATE, has no idea what it means, and certainly does not know how to pronounce it. According standard decoding rules, this person would likely pronounce ROTATE [ro-tate] as "RAWTATE" (making the O short)- without having the slightest idea that "RO" is the open syllable part of the word. Even a young child that is just learning to read will often (very likely) sound out ROTATE as "RAWTATE". I bring this issue up, because a large part of knowing "open syllables" really depends on the reader knowing the words to begin with!

Finally, do you prefer TO-MA-TO and PO-TA-TO, or do you prefer TO-MAT-O and PO-TAT-O? =)

Final Words

When working with long and short vowel sounds, I always teach the short vowel sounds first, and leave the teaching of long vowel sounds until a much later date, when the student has absolutely mastered the short vowel sounds. This is especially necessary for much younger 3-5 year olds, because what often happens as you introduce the long vowel concept to the child, is that the child may start confusing the long and short vowel sounds, and it takes a LOT of practice to help them get this long and short vowel concept all sorted out. So if you've read this far, my advice is to start with short vowels, and only start introducing long vowel sounds after your child has completely mastered the short vowels.

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