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The Long and Short of Vowels

Alison Clarke of Spelfabet wrote this great post about vowels. If you read it, I don’t have to explain my 20 different vowels to you. They sound different from Alison’s but I have them – and so do you, give or take.

I wanted to give my own brief rationale for not using the terms “long” and “short” in the remedial setting of That Reading Thing.

  • Our learners are all older and the only ones who might actually need the terminology for curriculum purposes are Year 6s who will get that in class. They don’t, however, need the terms to learn how to read or spell. This goes for all sorts of terminology. I’ve met 12 year olds who could say ‘split diagram” (sic) but were not able to read ‘time’. Even amongst teachers, I hear ‘diagraph’ almost as often as ‘digraph’.
  • Our students already read with a ruler, saying things like, ‘I can read short words but I can’t read long ones’. To them, long and short describe visual length, so the <ou> in ‘double’ is long and the <a> in ‘table’ is short, but they’re not and that’s confusing.
  • We could talk about length of sound, getting them to isolate the <oo> in spooky and the <oo> in took. The problem is that the <a> in mad is longer than that <a> in map – and many of our students will be able to hear that if we start using those terms and getting them to say sounds to determine the length. Basically, when you’re learning to read, you don’t also need a lesson in phonetics.
  • Our students have limited memories and I want them to use it to learn how to spell the sounds they say out loud. I also want them to learn to pronounce clearly the symbols they see (using their own accent). They can accomplish both these things without knowing which vowels are short and which are long.

You can get them to think about the differences between vowels and how that affects spelling patterns but without the jargon. After they’ve read and sorted all the ways to spell the “le” ending, we get out the Tweetle Beetles – read by me ridiculously fast, never the student unless they want to. Even the coolest of the cool will usually end up laughing. (Fox in Socks by Dr Seuss – there are a variety of used and new editions available.)

Tweetle Beetles

Then, on the TRT Try It board, I draw a line down the middle and we sort the words from the tongue twister with the book open.

We keep going with words that aren’t in the book and use sound only to decide on the spelling. You do need to point out that this isn’t a rule (double, treble etc) and that it only works with two syllable words (impossible, responsible etc).

During this exercise, a student might naturally bring up long and short vowels and we’ll go with that as long as they’re consistently correct. If they don’t, I just keep getting them to say the sounds as they’re writing and the pattern becomes evident.

My experience is that struggling readers learn better by putting into practice than by listening to explanations. The more they physically and verbally manipulate the sounds and syllables without explanation, the better they remember.

All that said, teachers usually know what we mean by short and long vowels so it’s a quick way to refer to types of sounds. If you decide to use the terms with students, let them know they don’t have to think about the actual length of the sound or the spelling.

Here is the sorting activity for doubling consonants with the help of Dr Seuss.


2 Responses

  1. jo Gavin

    I came across your blog by accident when looking for words to add to my lessons. I was so happy to see what you said about ‘long and short’ sounds. This term is so confusing for students that struggle. I have been saying this for years, after all, if you say the words ‘like’ and ‘lick’ as an example, which word sounds shorter or longer? Keep up the great work.

  2. Tricia

    Thanks Jo. I appreciate your taking the time to comment. I ask That Reading Thing tutors to constantly ask themselves if they are tearing down barriers or building them up. Unnecessary terminology, insisting on mastering adjacent consonants, spending too long on single syllable words – all those things can be a barrier to either the learning process itself or the student’s desire to stick with the learning process.

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