Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A, E, I, O, U, … Y Teach Vowel Sounds? – Part 2

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland
jonestamara@hotmail.com

The Trouble with Teaching Vowels

In last week’s post, I described why vowel sounds are so difficult to teach – they are hard to describe, there may be differing phonemic symbols for a single sound, and there are just so many of them in English. But, I also acknowledged that, even though they are daunting, we should cover them in all of our ESL and EFL classes because they are essential to communication. Specifically, the stressed vowel in a focus word needs to be pronounced comprehensibly or speakers risk obscuring the entire thought group. This is even more important for conversations between non-proficient English speakers who, research shows, rely more heavily on the sounds articulated than on the context for making sense of an utterance. I concluded the post with a promise for practical and painless suggestions for teaching vowel sounds.

Color Me Happy

Teaching vowels had always intimidated me until I came across Taylor and Thompson’s (1999, 2015) Color Vowel Chart. It’s pretty much what the title describes – a chart that assigns a color and noun to each of the vowel sounds. For instance, /iy/ is green tea and /æ/ is black cat. The sounds are placed in the chart according to where they are initiated in the mouth (though, full disclosure, I have trouble wrapping my mind around that bit). The reason I love the Color Vowel Chart is because the students love it. The vowel sounds are no longer something they make somewhere vague inside their mouths and represented by seemingly random and hard-to-remember symbols. Instead, they are colors and words that the students often already know. It also makes error correction a snap. If a student says “chip” instead of “cheap,” rather than a prolonged discussion of how to make correct sound, I can just say, “It’s not /ɪ/ – silver pin. It’s /iy/ – green tea.” I still use the IPA, but it’s not essential that they students memorize it to understand my feedback.

More Colorful Practice

When students are learning new vocabulary, I find it helpful not only to teach word stress, but to also have them categorize the stressed vowel sound in each word. For example, if students are learning the containers for non-count nouns, like “pint” or “can” or “tablespoon,” we also spend a minute identifying the vowel sounds “white tie” or “black cat” or “gray day” and “blue moon.” The creators of the Color Vowel Chart suggest having students record words by color in their vocabulary journals, but I don’t usually go that far. In my mind it’s enough just having them think about which sound it is they are trying to make as they are learning the words. It gives them another pass over the word, which helps reinforce it in their memory and they are that much closer to being understood when they ask for a pint of strawberries at the market than before.

Another fun activity that can help students review vowel sounds and review vocabulary, say for a unit test or final exam, involves labeling sheets of paper with each of the color vowel phrases. So, one sheet would have “brown cow” written on the top and another sheet would have “turquoise toy” written on the top. Then, I divide the class into groups of two or three and give each group a different colored marker. I set the timer for one minute and have each group go to a different paper. They have one minute to write all the words they can think of that contain that particular stressed vowel sound. When the timer goes off, they move to a different paper. They then have one minute to add to the list without repeating any words. After the groups have visited most of the papers, I pick them up and we read and chorally repeat the words, double checking that they are in the correct vowel sound category. The group with the most words listed (remember, they all have different color markers, so I can easily count) is the winner.

One last activity I have used successfully in my lessons is the vowel sound maze. (This is adapted from an activity in Hancock’s photo-copiable book, Pronunciation Games.) I’ve created a maze, which you are welcome to use. Download here: Vowels Maze. But you can also make your own. The students start at the top of the maze and move through it, going left, right, up and down but not through the “walls” of the maze until they come out the other side. In order to move, they can only cross through squares which, when the verb is put into the simple past tense, contains an /ɛ/ sound, as in “red dress”. So, the student could move into “sleep” but not “cost” because “slept” has the /ɛ/ sound but “cost” doesn’t. It’s a good way to review the irregular past and also remind students that the stressed vowel sounds are key in comprehensible pronunciation of the words they are working so hard to memorize.

I think we can all agree that vowel sounds are among the more intimidating aspects of English pronunciation. I’d love to hear how you teach them!


Hancock, M. (1996). Pronunciation Games. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, K., and Thompson, S. (1999, 2015). The Color Vowel™ Chart. Santa Fe NM: English Language Training Solutions. http://www.colorvowelchart.org.

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