What are vowels and consonants?

What are vowels and consonants?
We explain what vowels and consonants are and how primary-school children are taught to identify CVC, CCVC and CVCC words, vowel digraphs and consonant digraphs.

What are vowels and consonants?

The alphabet is made up of 26 letters, 5 of which are vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and the rest of which are consonants.

A vowel is a sound that is made by allowing breath to flow out of the mouth, without closing any part of the mouth or throat.

A consonant is a sound that is made by blocking air from flowing out of the mouth with the teeth, tongue, lips or palate ('b' is made by putting your lips together, 'l' is made by touching your palate with your tongue).

The letter 'y' makes a consonant sound when at the beginning of a word ('yacht', 'yellow') but a vowel sound when at the end of a word ('sunny', 'baby').

Vowels and consonants in primary school

Children learn all the letters of the alphabet in the Foundation Stage (nursery and Reception years). This means they learn to look at a letter and then make its sound, but also to hear the sound of a letter and be able to write it down.

In Reception children move onto learning to read and write CVC words (consonant, vowel, consonant) such as cat, top, hit, nap.

They then move on to read and write CCVC words such as trip, stop, pram.

They also learn CVCC words such as milk, lamp, tusk.

Children will also learn that sometimes two vowels are put together to make one sound, such as ai, oo, ea, ie which can be found in words such as rain, boot, read and pie. When two vowels are put together to make one sound, this is called a vowel digraph.

They also learn that sometimes two consonants are put together to make one sound, such as th, ch and sh which can be found in words such as bath, chip and mash. When two consonants are put together to make one sound, this is called a consonant digraph.

Teachers may or may not make children aware of all the linguistic vocabulary in bold above. It is not necessarily important that they know these words or can define them: the most important thing is that they learn to read and write individual letters and words with confidence through thorough step-by-step phonics activities.

Children moving up the school may notice certain things about vowels and consonants. For example, in English we rarely have three or more vowels together; beautiful, queue, liaise, quail, quiet, squeal are some of the few words that use this spelling pattern.

Another thing children may notice is that every word in the English language contains a vowel. This is quite a useful thing to know when playing hangman: go for the vowels first!