Tuesday, June 30, 2015
By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Why are Vowel Sounds so Hard to Teach and Learn?
I have a terrible confession to make. Even though I have taught pronunciation for more years than I care to count, I avoided teaching vowel sounds whenever I could. They were just so hard to teach; inevitably we would all wind up frustrated.
First, describing how we make vowel sounds is just hard. One of the first hurdles teachers encounter is that there is no contact of the articulators like there is when we make consonant sounds. In other words, we don’t touch our tongue, teeth, tooth ridge or lips when we articulate vowel sounds. So, when, for example, we teach the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds, we can tell students to stick their tongues between their teeth. But, when we teach vowel sounds, there is no such easy description of what students should be doing with their mouths.
Another problem is that all vowel sounds are voiced, so there is not that easy distinction the way there is with consonant sounds, like the differentiation between /v/ (voiced) and /f/ (voiceless) for instance. Similarly, when we are making all of the vowel sounds, we don’t block the airflow the way we do with some consonant sounds, such as /p/. In short, the way we differentiate between and describe vowel sounds is much less concrete and easily understood than the way we talk about consonant sounds.
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