Vowel Phonemes of English

Vowel Phonemes of English

Do you know all of the vowel phonemes of English? Like most people, I thought the vowels of English were a, e, i, o u, and sometimes y.  Those letters are the vowel letters of English.

I am about to share more than you ever probably wanted to know about vowels!  Then again, maybe you are like me and wish someone had shared all of this information with you sooner.  It sure would have improved my teaching sooner!  It has taken me time to internalize and “own” this knowledge.  Give yourself some time and some grace as well if this is new information to you.  

I believe that quality resources contain information that you can keep coming back to and continue to learn from.  There is information in this post you can take away from the start and there is information you can come back to in order to deepen your knowledge.  

Vowel Phonemes of English

The vowel phonemes of English, the speech sounds, are open speech sounds that are not consonants in English.  Every word and every syllable in English has to have a vowel.

There are 15 vowel phonemes in English, plus 3 vowel-r combinations.  

I had seen these vowel phonemes organized on a V-shaped chart for years, however, I had never run across an explanation of the importance of this organization!  To be fair, I hadn’t looked either.  You don’t know what you don’t know!  

By now you have probably seen this chart as well and may be wondering some of the same things I was wondering if you haven’t looked into the explanation.  This is the explanation I wish I had seen long ago!

Vowel Phonemes Chart in English

The Vowel Valley, as it is sometimes called in practice, organizes the vowel phonemes by mouth position.  Starting at the top left, our mouth is in a smiley position.  As you step down the mouth opens and the tongue drops.  These are slight changes from sound to sound and this causes our students difficulty in hearing sounds that are close together on the chart.  

Vowel Phonemes of English Chart

Front Vowels

When we say the front vowels, our mouth is not rounded.  Our tongue is up high.  Say the sounds in order from the top left and feel the slight drop of your tongue and your mouth opening slightly down to the /o/ in ostrich.  That is the vowel sound with the lowest tongue placement. 

It is important to talk with students about how to articulate (say) these sounds.  It can make a huge difference between learning the vowel sounds and confusing them. 

I have discovered that some of the students I work with aren’t just confusing the sounds, they are saying words wrong!  They are confused about “the word” that the people around them are saying. Whatever that word is.  That is such an amazing discovery to me.   When you have been saying a word wrong for your whole life (okay, 5-7 years) no wonder you are confused!

Back Vowels

When we say the back vowels, our mouth is slightly rounded and our tongue is coming up slightly to the roof of our mouth.  Say the sounds in order from the /u/ in up to the /yu/ in uniform.  Notice you close your jaw slightly with each sound moving up the right side of the chart.  

What are Diphthongs?

The two diphthongs that are not in the progression of the vowel valley are the /oy/ in boy and /ow/ in owl.  When you say those two sounds, notice how your mouth shifts positions.  

Technically, the /a/ as in acorn is a diphthong as well.  However, it is in the vowel valley because of its relationship to /a/ as in apple.  

Vowel-r Combinations

When a vowel precedes the letter r, the r combines with the vowel sound to make a “new” or “different” sound.  These combinations are the /er/ in her, the /ar/ in artist and the /or/ in orange.  You cannot separate the vowel sound from the /r/.  It might help to compare the words star and stair.  The /ai/ sound in the stair is much more easily separated from the /r/.   

What is the Schwa Sound?

Oh, schwa!  Schwa happens often!  This is the sound we hear in an unstressed syllable as in the words away and often.  You may be more familiar with the /uh/ sound in the word away than the /i/ sound we say in the second syllable of often.  

The schwa doesn’t cause problems in phonemic awareness because there are no letters involved.  

It sure causes students problems in reading and spelling!  We can spell the schwa sound with any vowel letter.  Learning about syllable types and unstressed syllables can help.  I teach students to say the word the way it is spelled as a way to help them remember the spelling.

Schwa Happens

Long Vowels vs Short Vowels

It would be easier if we used the linguist’s terms “tense” and “lax” for the sounds we have called long and short.  You can’t interpret long and short literally.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the length of time you say the sounds.  

Long Vowel Phonemes

The long vowels (vowel names) are the tense vowels in linguistic terms.  They require more tension in the tongue muscle to produce. 

Short Vowel Phonemes

The short vowels are the lax vowels because the tongue muscle is lax.  

When working with kindergarten children, I have been sticking to asking for the “name” of single-letter graphemes and the “sound” they represent.  In kindergarten, we are teaching the lax (short) sounds for those single vowel letters because we spell the tense (long) sounds with more than one grapheme.  The first pattern we get to in first grade is the vowel-consonant-e pattern.  I know that is getting into spelling, but it has reduced some confusion as children move along in the reading and spelling scope and sequence.  It should all work together!

Vowel Graphemes

Graphemes are the way we write and spell sounds. Graphemes can be made up of two, three, or even four letters.  Vowel graphemes may even contain consonant letters like the /ough/ in thought.  There are many different ways to spell some sounds.  For example, the “long a” can be spelled a-e, ai, ay, a, eigh, ei, ea, and ey.` 


Vowel-consonant-e describes a syllable type that indicates a way to spell the long vowel sound.  You will see it represented as a_e, e_e, i_e, o_e, u_e.  The underline is a space holder for a single consonant.  

Vowel teams

Vowel teams are two or more graphemes working together to represent long, short, or diphthong vowel sounds in spelling.  Examples would be the -ay in the word day, -oy in the word toy, and -igh in the word light.  Notice that vowel teams can include consonant letters as well as vowel letters.  

Share the Joy of the Science of Literacy and Reading

Share the joy of teaching and learning to read!  If you like this post, share it with a friend.  Find more beginning reading resources, early literacy resources, and information throughout my blog and website. I am on a mission to help as many students learn to read as I possibly can.  The best way to do this is to help as many parents and educators that teach reading as possible. I only post teaching and learning information that is research-proven and I fully support and believe in the Science of Literacy and Reading.


All of the ideas are my own and do not necessarily represent the views, positions, strategies, or opinions of any of the authors or companies mentioned. I do not receive any compensation for the resources mentioned in this post. 

Speech to Print:  Language Essentials for Teachers by Louisa Cook Moats

2 Responses

    1. I am so happy this information is helpful! Glad to know it resonates with educators and parents. We both have the same goal of educating our children! Thank you for your comment.

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Dr. Jenelle Strecker teaches beginning reading

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I help K-3 teachers teach with the science of reading so that all of their students learn to read.

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