How to Teach Short and Long Vowel Sounds

Alex Case
Distinguishing and pronouncing short vowels and long vowels teaching tips

Short and long vowel sound contrasts like “hit” and “heat” are common causes of communication problems in English, and the causes are more complicated than they might seem. However, the right kinds of tips and practice activities like those below can make short vowels and long vowels an eminently teachable and even fun point. Diphthongs like the O in “open” will be dealt with in other articles, as they are combinations of two short sounds and so neither exactly short nor long.

What students need to know about short and long vowels

Perhaps the first thing for students to learn is how to spot the colon (:) that shows a long vowel sound in their dictionary, textbook, etc, as seen in /pi:s/ for “peace”.

Some languages like Spanish and Korean don’t have distinctions between short and long vowel sounds. However, even students who speak such languages don’t tend to have any problem pronouncing a short version and a long version of vowel sounds. Contrasting works particularly well if you get them to make the short version very short and the long version very long, e.g. pronouncing “cat” and “cart” like “ct” and “caaaaaaart”. This can also be a useful tactic in normal life when people that they are communicating with can’t hear which sound they are trying to pronounce (though they will rarely hear such extreme contrasts otherwise).

There are also many students who have a clear short vowel and long vowel distinction in L1 like Japanese speakers. However, the complication in English is that the similar short sounds and long sounds are not exactly the same sound, and so the speaker changes mouth position as well as length when they move between them. For example, the /ɑ:/ in “barter” is pronounced with a wide-open mouth, which is why doctors ask patients to “Say ah” in order to look at the back of their throats. In contrast, the /æ/ in “batter” has a much more closed mouth, more similar to the /ʌ/ in “butter”. This can be seen in the use of different symbols for each sound, as long and short versions of the same sound would be written as /ɑ/ vs /ɑ:/ or /æ/ vs /æ:/ (as in some other languages), instead of the actual English pair of /æ/ vs /ɑ:/.

Other contrasting pairs with similar but not identical short and long vowel sounds include:

  • /ɪ/ in “bit” vs /i:/ in “beat”, with the latter having a much more broadly smiling mouth (the reason why we take photos saying “Cheese!”)
  • /ɒ/ in “shot” vs /ɔ:/ in “short” (with the mouth in the latter being slightly tighter and more rounded)
  • /ʊ/ in “put” vs /u:/ in the “pu” bit of “computer” (with the latter having a slightly more rounded, tighter mouth, as if you are impressed by something and saying “Oooo, that’s lovely!”)
  • /ʌ/ in “putter” vs /u:/ in the “pu” bit of “computer” (with the latter having a much more rounded mouth)
  • /ə/ in the “on” part of “melon” vs /ɜ:/ in “learn” (with the former having a completely relaxed mouth, like the stereotypical teenage “Uh?”, and the latter being like the sound of disgust “Urgh!”)

This list shows that every long vowel sound has a similar but not identical short sound, leaving /e/ as the only short vowel sound without a paired long vowel sound (the closest thing being the diphthong /eɪ/).

Although I said above that the differences in mouth position are a complication of pronouncing short and long vowel sounds differently, in many ways these differences make it easier to recognise and pronounce “sit” and “seat”, etc. This is because there are two things that the listener can use to try to tell if the speaker means “soot” or “suit”, etc. It also means that a little lip reading can often help, both in communication and in classroom presentation and practice.

How to present and practise short and long vowel sounds

An obvious start to some classroom time on short and long vowel sounds is a student misunderstanding or misspelling something, or saying something that could be misunderstood. For example, a good moment might be if one or more students write “pot” in a gap where “port” should go, or if someone seems to be saying “feet” where “fit” would make more sense. If you write the sentence on the board with the word that doesn’t make sense, you can first of all get students to think about the meaning to elicit what the similar correct answer must be. Then pronounce the two versions, and elicit the differences between them. If students don’t notice the difference in mouth position, it can help to silently mime the two contrasting words. Although it’s perfectly possible to make the short sound longer without changing mouth position, students who are familiar with the words and/ or your accent might also notice that /bɒ:t/ sounds weird as a pronunciation of “bought”, etc.

A good next step is to write those contrasting short and long sounds on opposite sides of the board under A and B. Then say some more words containing one sound or the other for students to identify as having the sound like that in column A or column B. You can add context, exaggerated differences and/ or silent miming if they have difficulty spotting which they are hearing. However, if they start to rely too much on seeing your mouth shape, you’ll sometimes need to cover your mouth (in this stage and during practice activities).

You can then do the same with other pairs of short and long vowel sounds so that students can see the more general pattern of changes in both length and mouth position.

Spotting which of two sounds are being said can also be turned into a game in which students race to show which of the two they think they hear. This can be done by holding up A and B cards, aiming something such as paper aeroplanes at the two sides of the board, and running and touching two walls of the classroom.

More games and other practice activities will soon be dealt with in another article on this site.

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Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub.com
Alex Case, founder TeflTasticAlex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers. He has been a teacher, teacher trainer, director of studies, and editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, Italy, UK, Korea and now Japan. He has published a book with Macmillan and hundreds of articles, reviews, lesson plans and worksheets with Onestopenglish, Modern English Teacher and many others. In addition to contributing articles and teaching ideas to Tefl.NET, Alex for many years edited Tefl.NET Book Reviews.
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