Tackling Vowels Within a Complex Theory of Reading

Thank you Maggie @GoReadBooks for suggesting this blog post!

As we know, many of the letters in the English language have multiple sounds associated with them. Vowels sounds, in particular, can be quite tricky for some students to learn. My stance is that while learning vowel sounds is important, children should not be held back from reading more complex text because they do not know all of their vowel sounds. It is important to balance all sources of information so that we are not sacrificing meaning and structure for the sake of letter sounds.

The following are suggestions to aid in learning vowel sounds while respecting that reading is more than simply knowing letter sounds.

Make words really well known

In order for a word to be helpful as a link to new words, the student needs to know the word very well and in detail. If the student knows “can” very well they can use “an” to help get to new words.  How do we know if a student knows a word well enough to use it as a link? Marie Clay, writes that the highest level of knowing a word is when it is “known in many variant forms” (p. 75).  In other words, the word would be known when it is written in a different font or size, when it is in a different location in a sentence, when inflectional endings are adding, etc.

Read this post if you would like to read more about teaching new words through writing.

Teach vowels as a word part

Larger units can be easier for young readers to handle in comparison to smaller units. It is easier for students to make a vowel sound when it is connected to the sound next to it. The letter next to the vowel can also change the sound of the vowel. The “o” sound in “ot” sounds different when compared to the “o” sound in “og”.

Create charts with the class or small groups that have word parts or words that go with each vowel for students to use as a reference.

Keep reading as the focus

When the perception is that students are struggling with their sounds we may be tempted to increase the amount of time spent working on sounds in isolation. It is important that we continue to spend the majority of the small group lesson time reading continuous text. When thinking of the classroom day, we should spend the majority of literacy time with students engaged in real reading, not isolated skill and drill work focused on letter sounds.

Teach for flexibility

Teaching hard and fast rules about vowels is not helpful because of the many exceptions to the rules. In general, students need to know that vowels have a short sound and a long sound. If the short sound doesn’t work our students need to be flexible enough to try the long sound. When we don’t teach for flexibility with vowels students will either stop when they make the sound that follows the rule and it doesn’t work or they will make the sound that follows the rule and keep reading even though what they said doesn’t make sense. When we teach for flexibility our students will know how to try something else and make multiple attempts while balancing all sources of information.

Don’t forget about meaning and structure

Visual information is important but it is just one piece of the process. When a child attempts to sound out a word and the vowel sound isn’t quite right we might think “Oh, he/she doesn’t know his/her vowel sounds”, but what if we stopped for a minute and considered the meaning and structure of the story? Is the student thinking about what is going on in the story? Are they thinking about what would sound right to come next? After attempting to sound out the word is it close enough that if they were thinking about the story that would just say what makes sense? We need to be cautious because when we put all of our focus on visual information we put meaningful reading that sounds right in jeopardy.

Use writing to strengthen reading

Sound boxes are a great way to strengthen a student’s ability to hear individual sounds in words. When a student is able to hear the sounds they are more likely to have success with linking the sounds to letters when they are reading. Encourage students to say words slowly when writing (not in a segmented way). This will decrease the likeliness that students will add a schwa sound where it doesn’t belong and make it more likely that students will hear vowel sounds accurately. Sometimes, having a student break orally words into onset and rime can make it easier to hear the vowel sounds (p-in, m-ake).

Take advantage of small group time

Students who are struggling with their sounds can easily become lost during large group phonics instruction. Meeting with these students in a small group setting allows us to better meet their specific needs. We want to make sure that we keep this time brief and connected to our students’ reading and writing. The following are some activities that you might have your students do to work with vowels:

  • Sort pictures (start with the most contrasting vowel sound such as “a” and “o”)
  • Sort magnetic letters by vowels and consonants
  • Make and break words while switching up the vowel sounds (cat to cut, ran to run, lap to lip)
  • Practice breaking words into syllables, onset & rime, letter by letter

Connect the learning

We want to make an intentional effort to connect any of the isolated sound work that we do to the reading and writing that is happening daily in our classroom. We also want our the students to see echoes of the learning throughout their school day.

In Summary

Without a doubt, letter sounds are important pieces of knowledge that help our readers to monitor, self-correct, and problem-solve their reading.  Even though it can be difficult we don’t want to fall into the trap of over-valuing or over-emphasizing item knowledge.  We want to support our students in using letters sounds along with the meaning and structure of the story.  Keeping all of sources of information in mind will help our students to become active flexible problem-solvers.

More on teaching letters:

Kindergarten Letter Knowledge: Predictor of Future At-Risk Readers



Clay, Marie M. Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals (2nd edition). Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2016. Print.

Fountas, Irene C. and Pinnell, Gay Su. When Readers Struggle: Teaching That Works. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2009. Print.

Richardson, Jan. The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading: An Assess-Decide-Guide Framework for Supporting Every Reader. Scholastic. 2016. Print.

Taberski, Sharon. On Solid Ground: Strategies For Teaching Reading K-3. Portsmouth: Heinemann. 2000.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s