english vowels

What Are English Vowels? The Full Answer, Plus Pronunciation and Practice Tips

English vowel sounds and vowel pronunciation can be challenging for those trying to learn English as a second language.

It’s often difficult to decipher when to use the correct letter and how to pronounce it correctly.

But don’t worry! I’ve put together eight fun tips and resources that you can use to practice English vowels and improve your pronunciation.

Let’s dive in!

Contents

What Is a Vowel?

The simple answer to the question above is: vowels are the letters a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y.

Have you ever wondered why those letters are vowels, though? They are the sounds you make without anything breaking the sound or air coming out of your mouth.

Make the “e” sound out loud. Now place your tongue between your teeth or on the roof (top, inside part) of your mouth and try again. And now close your mouth and try one more time.

It’s difficult—almost impossible—to make that sound when there’s something like your lips or your tongue in the way, isn’t it?

Every other letter in the English alphabet is called a consonant.

The sounds of consonants, on the other hand, are made by placing your tongue or lips in a certain way. This blocks the air coming out of your mouth when you speak, turning it into a specific sound.

When vowels are placed between consonants, all the sounds come together and a word is formed.

English Vowel Pronunciation

Note: This post focuses on standard American pronunciation. In different parts of the world, like Britain, Australia and even the regional U.S., there are variations in the way people pronounce their vowels.

Most of the time, a vowel makes its own sound (that is, the letter a makes a sounds).

In some rare cases, though, a certain sound is made by a combination of other letters (like when the long a sound is made by the letters ei). 

All vowels have at least two pronunciations: a long sound and a short sound.

A long vowel is the name of the vowel (for example, long a is ay like in the word say). A short vowel is a shorter sound (for example, short a sounds like æ from the word cat).

A vowel’s position in a word can affect the way you pronounce it. For example:

1. When a word or syllable ends in a consonant and has only one vowel, that vowel is short.

Examples: cat, bed, fish

2. When a word ends in e, the e is silent (not read out loud), and the vowel that comes before it is long.

Examples: bake, file, rope

3. When a syllable has two vowels next to each other, the first is usually long and the second short.

Examples: pain, boat, grow

4. When a syllable ends in one vowel, that vowel is usually long.

Examples: open, unit, paper

Keep in mind that every rule has exceptions and there are times when the rules don’t apply! Sometimes the only way to learn something is to practice and memorize it.

8 Ways to Practice English Vowel Sounds

I know it can be hard to memorize rules and pronunciation. But whichever way you choose to learn, knowing the rules as well as practicing how to actually make the sounds are both important to become fluent.

Here are some fun ways to learn and improve your knowledge of English vowel sounds and make the learning process easier for you:

1. Pronunciation Mazes

A pronunciation maze is a worksheet filled with words. To complete the sheet, you have to start with a word on top and finish with a word on the bottom—finding words with the same vowel sounds.

  • Here is a pronunciation maze for the sound u as in the word but.
  • Here is another maze for the sound oo as in book.
  • Here is a maze for the o, ou and u sounds.

You can find many other mazes online by searching for pronunciation maze.

What you can learn: Vowels change their sound based on where they are in the word and the letters that surround them. Doing a pronunciation maze makes you aware of vowel sounds and helps you hear the difference between bit and beat, for example.

If you pay close attention, you can begin to notice some patterns—like that words with the letters ea in the middle usually make a similar sound (but not always!).

That means the next time you see a word that has the letters ea, you might be able to pronounce it correctly without even knowing what it means.

2. Shadow Reading

Find a short clip from a movie, TV show or even your favorite commercial.

You can do this on YouTube, or opt for a program where the subtitles are sure to be 100% accurate, like FluentU. Every video on FluentU includes interactive subtitles, so you’ll be reading, watching and listening at the same time.

You can check the meaning of any word without leaving the video player by hovering your mouse over or clicking on the word. You can also easily replay individual sentences just by clicking on an arrow, which is very useful for shadowing.

english vowels

Watch the clip twice. The first time, just watch silently. The second time, say the words along with the clip. Try to match the pronunciation, intonation (the rise and fall of the voice) and speed of the audio. This exercise is called shadow reading.

What you can learn: Speaking fluently is not just about knowing the right words and grammar. It’s about knowing how to say them, too. Speaking with the clip will help you practice speaking faster without pausing and still pronouncing words correctly.

3. Tongue Twisters

Tongue twisters are a series of words that repeat the same sounds often, which makes them difficult to say fast. You can find a list of excellent vowel-focused tongue twisters here.

Choose a tongue twister and say it out loud. Say it quite slowly at first and focus on pronouncing the vowels correctly. As you get more comfortable, say the tongue twister faster and faster. 

Use your phone to record audio of your English tutor or language partner saying the tongue twister slowly, then faster. Use the audio to practice. Alternatively, you could also search for a YouTube video of a native speaker saying the tongue twister.

What you can learn: You’ve heard it before—practice, practice, practice! There’s no better way to learn than to practice. Tongue twisters are a fun way to practice saying certain sounds. The better you get at the tongue twisters, the better you will get at pronouncing different English vowel sounds correctly.

4. Mute the Sound

Find a movie clip or any other short video that has actual people speaking. Before pressing play, mute the sound and remove the subtitles. Watch the clip and try to understand what the people are saying by the way their lips move.

What you can learn: Sounds generally come from the throat, but our mouths are where those sounds are shaped into letters and words. The shape of your mouth and the location of your tongue when you speak are important for pronouncing words correctly.

Paying attention to the shape of peoples’ mouths when they speak can make it easier to understand and repeat the same sounds. Watching people speak—with the sound off—makes you more aware of mouth shapes and can help you understand how to pronounce the same sounds correctly.

The u sound in the word rebuke and the oo sound in the word book might seem similar but when watching someone say the two words you’ll see the difference.

5. Reading the Dictionary

The next time you look up a new word in a dictionary, try to say the word out loud first, pronouncing it as well as you can.

Then listen to the dictionary pronunciation of the word, say it together with the audio and finally say it out loud on your own. 

What you can learn: You probably use an online dictionary or a dictionary app when you’re looking up new English words. If you only use the word and definition, then you’re missing out on some of the best features of online dictionaries!

Most online dictionaries have an audio button, which will say the word out loud for you. Some online dictionaries—like the Cambridge English Dictionary—even have a different audio button for American and British English, so you can hear the word in both accents.

Another useful feature of any dictionary—physical or online—is the pronunciation guide. It might take a bit of time, but it’s useful to understand the dictionary pronunciation guide. This guide shows you how to pronounce any word in the dictionary.

6. Minimal Pairs

Minimal pairs are words that sound the same except for one sound change, like bus and buzz or sit and seat.

For this exercise, you’ll need a list of minimal pairs—you can find a good one here.

Practice or record yourself saying the words out loud, speaking clearly and exaggerating the sounds—making them sound bigger and more important than they actually are.

What you can learn: Sometimes it’s difficult to hear the difference between certain vowel sounds. You can make it easier for yourself to hear the difference by practicing and saying similar words. By making the sounds larger you can better hear and feel the difference.

7. Read Dr. SeussOh, Say Can You Say?

Dr. Seuss is a well-known children’s book author. His books are meant for kids to learn to speak and read well by using simple and catchy rhymes. Some Dr. Seuss books are an excellent way to learn vowel pronunciation!

The three best Dr. Seuss books for learning vowel pronunciation are “Oh Say Can You Say,” “Fox in Socks,” and “Hop on Pop.” Read them out loud!

Need some help? You can find audio versions of the books on YouTube as a read-along version. Here’s an audio reading of “Oh Say Can You Say,” here’s one of “Fox in Socks,” and here’s one of “Hop on Pop,” to get you started.

What you can learn: Children’s books are great learning tools no matter what age you are. The words, rhythms and rhymes in Dr. Seuss books make them easy to remember and read. Since the books are meant to teach kids in the simplest way possible, you’ll be learning useful topics like long and short vowels, different vowel sounds and spelling patterns.

8. Song Games

There are a number of children’s songs that help teach different vowels as well. Listen and try to sing along with songs like “Apples and Bananas” and “The Frog Doesn’t Wash His Feet.”

Many songs like these change the vowel sounds in words. This results in many nonsense words, like benene instead of banana. This is an effective method for learning vowel sounds because the rest of the word doesn’t change—helping you to focus on the vowel sounds instead.

What you can learn: It’s important to know the right pronunciation of a word, but just knowing how to make the different vowel sounds can help you speak correctly.

 

Learning vowel sounds and pronunciations will make it easier for you to learn new English words and become more fluent in the language.

Take some time to practice and learn with these exercises and you’ll be having fun and learning at the same time!

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe

Close