What is a vowel?


Pop quiz time:   What’s the difference between a vowel and a consonant?

Do you know?  I didn’t take linguistics in college (not required for education majors).  So I didn’t learn this until I read some research textbooks on-line after becoming a reading specialist 5 years into my teaching career.   (nerd alert! I read literacy research textbooks for fun so you don’t have to). Anyway, I don’t recall the exact “researchy” definition of a vowel or a consonant, but this is the way I explain it to students:

Vowels open your mouth; consonants close your mouth.

Did you know this?  It was an eye-opening, jaw-dropping moment for me when I realized this (pun intended).   I immediately tested it to just to make sure it was true for every letter and, SPOILER ALERT, it is!  All of a sudden, I understood why there’s such thing as a closed syllable versus an open syllable.    Now I knew why the vowels are “a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y”.   Finally I realized when the “sometimes y” occurs.

After I learned what a vowel is, I started teaching it to the kids in my reading segments. Now it’s one of the first lessons I will do when beginning the school year or launching a new reading group.  Curious the exact language I use? Check out this teaching powerpoint. And here is a freebie I made for the students to use for reference.

I use two types of images to help my visual learners remember this key difference.

  1. Open mouth face versus closed mouth face

  2. Open door versus closed door

For kinesthetic learners, I keep small pocket mirrors in my reading supplies.   The students and I watch in the mirrors as we practice saying all the vowel sounds and see our mouths open wide as we produce them.  Then we see and feel how our mouth must close (partially or all the way) to make the consonant sounds. As a science experiment/performance task, I’ll ask the students to “prove it” for each sound.  I give them 26 index cards (one for each letter) and have them say each sound while looking in the mirror. Then they sort by open or closed mouth/vowel or consonant. This is a fresh way to think about the letters, and my students have always enjoyed and learned from this hands-on task.   It helps them internalize the difference in the letter types, which sets them up for future success when learning the various vowel sounds and syllable types.

TEACHING NOTES: Sometimes students get confused on /g/, /h/, /p/.    The /m/ and /v/ sounds are some of the more obvious ones. I’ll tell them to make a pile of ones they’re not sure about, and we’ll go over them at the end.   If they’re really stuck and confused, show them the jaw and how it is hinging as you say the sounds. You have to start opening your mouth to get out a vowel sound (be it long, short, r-controlled, truly ANY vowel sound).  Your mouth HAS to open to make that sound. Consonant sounds, however, are made by starting to close your mouth. To make the /h/ sound, you have to slightly close your mouth to push the sound out. You have to push your lips closed to make the /p/ sound.

Over the years, I’ve been told by my administrators that my ideas are “outside of the box.”  This instruction falls in that category. It’s not a typical lesson that occurs beyond kindergarten or first grade classrooms.  But it’s an essential piece of my literacy content and one that I’ve taught to all my reading groups, even to students in fourth and fifth grade.  I’ve found that when students truly internalize the difference between vowels and consonants, they have an easier time understanding the categories of syllables and how to change vowel sounds.

Try this lesson with your students and let me know how it goes.   Comment below or email me at shannon@readingdevelopment.com.