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What are short and long vowels?

Short and long vowels image
Although we have five vowel letters in English, each one can be pronounced in different ways and there are, therefore, far more than five vowel phonemes (vowel sounds). Each one has a short vowel and a long vowel form. Understanding vowel sounds is essential for developing reading and spelling skills.

By recognising and differentiating between short and long vowel sounds, primary school children can effectively decode and encode words, which are vital skills when learning to read. Graphemes for short vowel phonemes are the easiest to learn and are taught first. Most graphemes for long vowels involve digraphs or trigraphs and are usually taught later in most primary school phonic schemes.


What are short vowels?

Short vowels are vowel sounds that are pronounced briefly and do not have an extended duration like long vowels. In English, there are five primary short vowel sounds. These are sometimes represented by these symbols: /æ/, /ɛ/, /ɪ/, /ɒ/, and /ʌ/ or they can be represented by a curved symbol above the vowel e.g. ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, ŭ.

These are the vowel sounds heard, for example, in ‘hat’, ‘bed’, ‘big’, ‘hot’ and ‘tub’. When we say a short vowel sound, the sound is not prolonged, and it is usually represented by a single letter.

Let's take a closer look at each short vowel sound:

/æ/ - This sound is commonly represented by the letter ‘a’ (e.g., cat, hat) and occasionally by ‘ai’ (e.g., rain, said).

/ɛ/ - The short ‘e’ sound can be represented by the letter ‘e’ (e.g., bed, red) and ‘ea’ (e.g., head, bread).

/ɪ/ - This sound is usually represented by the letter ‘I’ (e.g., sit, hit) and occasionally by ‘y’ (e.g., gym, symbol).

/ɒ/ - The short ‘o’ sound can be represented by the letter ‘o’ (e.g., dog, hot) and occasionally by ‘a’ (e.g., watch, want).

/ʌ/ - This sound is commonly represented by the letter ‘u’ (e.g., bus, sun) and occasionally by ‘o’ (e.g., come, love).

It's important to note that the pronunciation of short vowels can vary depending on the word and regional accents.

When are short vowels taught?

The order in which vowel sounds are taught may vary as schools can choose their own phonics scheme or approach to follow. However, short vowel sounds are usually introduced early in most schemes because these lay the foundations for blending and segmenting. This is typically during Reception – probably in the Autumn term.

How to help your child with short vowels at home

There are lots of ways you can help your child to learn and practise these short vowel sounds. Here are a few ideas you could try at home:

  • Short vowel sound sorting: Provide a set of word cards or a list of words and have your child sort them into different groups based on the vowel sound they hear. For example, they can sort words with the /æ/ sound (e.g., cat, hat) into one group and words with the /ɛ/ sound (e.g., bed, red) into another. This activity helps children develop phonemic awareness and strengthens their ability to distinguish between different short vowel sounds.
  • Short vowel bingo: Play a variation of the classic game Bingo, focusing on short vowel sounds. Create Bingo cards with different short vowel words written on them. Instead of calling out numbers, say words aloud, emphasising the short vowel sound. Children cover the corresponding word on their Bingo cards if they have it. This game encourages active listening and reinforces the association between specific words and their short vowel sounds.
  • Short vowel puzzles: Create puzzle pieces with short vowel words and corresponding images. Mix up the pieces and have your child match the word with the correct image. This activity helps reinforce the connection between the visual representation of a word and its corresponding short vowel sound. You can also have students work collaboratively, taking turns to build the puzzles, which promotes teamwork and peer learning.
  • Short vowel song or chant: Compose a catchy song or chant that incorporates short vowel sounds. Include examples of words with each short vowel sound in the lyrics. Sing or chant the song together as a class, emphasising the correct pronunciation of each short vowel sound. This activity makes learning fun and memorable, helping students internalize the sounds through rhythm and repetition.
  • What’s in the bag? This is a popular game used in many EYFS classrooms. Put objects in a bag and pull them out. Say what the object is and have your child shout out the short vowel sound that they can hear e.g. you might pull out a toy cat and they have to say the /æ/ sound.

What are long vowels?

Long vowels are vowel sounds that are pronounced for a longer duration compared to their short counterparts. In English, there are five primary long vowel sounds: /ɑː/, /iː/, /ɜː/, /ɔː/, and /uː/. These may also be represented by a horizontal line above the vowel to show it is a long sound e.g. ā, ē, ī, ō, ū.

When we say a long vowel sound, we hold the sound for a longer period of time without closing any part of our mouth or throat. Unlike short vowels, which are usually represented by a single letter, long vowels are often represented by a vowel digraph or a vowel followed by a silent ‘e.’

Here are the longer vowel forms in more detail:

/ɑː/ - This sound is commonly represented by the letters ‘a’ (e.g., name, gate) and ‘ai’ (e.g., rain, paint).

/iː/ - The long ‘ee’ sound can be represented by the letters ‘ee’ (e.g., bee, tree) and ‘ea’ (e.g., sea, heat).

/ɜː/ - This sound is usually represented by the letters ‘er’ (e.g., her, term) and ‘ir’ (e.g., bird, firm).

/ɔː/ - The long ‘o’ sound can be represented by the letters ‘o’ (e.g., go, hope) and ‘oa’ (e.g., boat, coal).

/uː/ - This sound is commonly represented by the letters ‘u’ (e.g., mule, music) and ‘oo’ (e.g., moon, soon).

When are long vowels taught?

As children progress through Reception, they will begin to learn the long vowel sounds. This will usually be in the Spring term. In the Letters and Sounds Phonics Programme, these sounds are taught during Phase 3. Examples of long vowel sounds taught in Phase 3 include /ai/ (as in "rain"), /ee/ (as in "see"), /igh/ (as in "night"), /oa/ (as in "boat"), and /oo/ (as in "moon").

How to help your child with long vowels at home

There are plenty of ways to help your child master these long vowel sounds. You can adapt the games and activities mentioned earlier for the short sounds or why not give some of these a try:

  • Long vowel word sort: Create word cards or lists containing words with different long vowel sounds. For example, include words like ‘rain,’ ‘see,’ ‘night,’ ‘boat,’ and ‘moon.’ Have your child sort the words into groups based on the long vowel sound they hear. This activity helps children develop phonemic awareness and strengthens their ability to recognise and differentiate between different long vowel sounds.
  • Long vowel memory match: Create pairs of cards with words and corresponding images that contain long vowel sounds. Mix up the cards and place them face down on the table. Take turns flipping over two cards to find a match of a word with its corresponding image. As you turn over each card, pronounce the word and identify the long vowel sound within it. This game enhances visual and auditory recognition of long vowel sounds and builds vocabulary skills.
  • Long vowel roll and read: Create a game board with different long vowel words written in a grid. Provide a dice or a spinner with different long vowel sound options. Children take turns rolling the dice or spinning the spinner, and based on the indicated long vowel sound, they choose a word from the corresponding column or section of the game board to read aloud. This game reinforces the association between specific long vowel sounds and the corresponding words.
  • Long vowel sentence match: Prepare sentence strips with sentences that contain words with long vowel sounds. Cut the sentences into separate words and mix them up. Challenge your child to read the individual words and rearrange them to form the correct sentences. This activity strengthens reading and decoding skills while emphasising the long vowel sounds within context.
  • Long vowel word hunt: Provide your child with a list of long vowel words or word cards. Have them search through books, magazines or printed materials to find examples of words that contain the target long vowel sound. This activity encourages independent reading, word recognition and contextual understanding of long vowel sounds.
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