Classifying English Vowel Sounds

classifying vowels

Common spellings of English Vowel Sounds

Glenys Hanson


Students learning English sometimes get the impression that the spelling rules are almost impossibly difficult to master. It can be useful for them to realize that there is a high percentage of irregular spellings in common words (that is, the 500 or so function words plus the 2000 words necessary to describe every day objects and actions) but that other words are generally regular. This means that the more English they learn, the easier it gets. It also means that just because the irregularly spelt common words are common, students will inevitably get a lot of practice in reading and writing them and learn the spellings without the need for specific exercises. Just telling beginners this can give them confidence and avoid them wasting their time learning by heart the spelling of words such as “two” or “women”. When they have advanced enough to have a vocabulary of 1000 words or more it can be salutary for them to understand that there is a certain “method in the madness” of English spelling. This is one of the objectives of the “classic” Silent Way vowel classifying exercise described below.

Students whose native language uses the Latin alphabet have a different problem: seeing the written word induces incorrect pronunciation because they spontaneously attribute to the letters the sound value of their first language. The vowel classifying exercise can be helpful for this, too.

The “classic” Silent Way vowel classifying exercise

The first step is to have a corpus of at least 50 words. This is usually done by brainstorming words from the students themselves. For example, words related to a wall picture, words related to a topic such as food or a given profession. The teacher writes the words on the board in no particular order. The corpus can also be a short text, but this is not so much fun. Brainstorming nearly always produces a high energy level in the class which is important for the next step not to be perceived initially as a chore.

The second step is for the students to classify the words in columns according to the vowel sound. They may be instructed to classify all the vowel sounds in a word or only the stressed sounds. The first possibility has the advantage of generating more sounds to be classified from a given corpus; the second means that they also have to work out which is the stressed syllable.

To do the classification the teacher provides the students with large sheets of paper (flip chart sheets) and scotch tape or Blu-tack to fix them to the walls and a marker. The teacher requests two volunteers to be “secretaries”. One secretary is to write the words in columns on the wall and the other to erase the words from the board as they are added to the columns. If all the syllables in a word are to be classified, this latter secretary strikes through the syllables of polysyllabic words until they are all done. The other secretary underlines the relevant syllable of polysyllabic words according to each column. That is because such words will be found in several columns. The other students have to tell the secretaries what to do.

Once the teacher has made it clear to the students what they have to do, s/he has almost nothing to do for the next 1 ½ to 2 hours except sit at the back of the class and listen to the students discussing where to put the words. In this situation, the only times I, personally, intervene is to suggest they change secretaries from time to time or when they have a problem they are incapable of resolving themselves. For example, Pierre has an American accent and wants to put “past” in the column “bad” while Marie with a British accent wants to put it in the column with “car”. I point out that they are both correct and why. Otherwise, I let them put the words where they wish. Often some of the words erroneously classified at the beginning of the exercise are corrected by the students themselves before the end.

Only when they have completely finished do I indicate, by writing a number at the head of each column, how many misclassified syllables there are. Then I sit down again and let them work it out. At this point, shyer students, who have been overruled earlier by a noisy majority, frequently find the courage to speak up.

After they have finished again, I adjust the numbers at the head of each column – and let them continue to work until there is a zero at the head of each. I rarely have to help them.

Students often express pride and satisfaction at having been able to solve the problem without the teacher’s help. Intermediate and even advanced students are frequently amazed to discover how many common words they had been pronouncing incorrectly for years.

If possible, the sheets are left on the walls and in the following sessions when other words pose a pronunciation or spelling problem, the students work out where to place them. In fact, words already written in the columns will often continue to be mispronounced because it is usually not enough for students to realize that their pronunciation of a given word is incorrect if they have been mispronouncing it for years. They will need practice to change an ingrained habit. Having the columns permanently on the wall, serves as a handy reference that can be used by teacher and students alike.

When they have 10 or more words in each column, the students can be asked to work out what are the common spellings for each sound. If the Silent Way Fidel charts (all the possible spellings of each sound are listed in columns and colour-coded) are available, it can be useful to take them out and compare them with the columns on the wall.

In some classes I do the classic exercise described above but I also do “pen & paper” variants if I think it useful for intermediate or higher classes.

This exercise is intended to make students aware that though there is not just one spelling for each sound, for each sound there is only a very limited number of common spellings.

Either the students work as a whole group in the classroom as described above or they start the exercise in class in small groups and finish it individually for homework.

Step 1

First I give them the following sheet of paper:

Classifying English Vowel Sounds -common - words to be classifiedClassifying English Vowel Sounds: common words (PDF)

Step 2

Then I also give them an “empty” sheet on which to classify the above words:

Classifying English Vowel Sounds -common - worksheet (PDF Classifying English Vowel Sounds: common words – worksheet (PDF)

Step 3

When they have finished their classifications, I give them the following to check their work:

Classifying English Vowel Sounds -common - keyClassifying English Vowel Sounds: common words – key (PDF)

 When they have the key, I ask them a number of questions. For example:
  • “Why was this particular layout chosen?”
  • “What is the role of the final letter “e”?”
  • “What is the role of the letter “r” after a vowel?”
  • “/ju:/ is not a vowel or diphthong. Why is it included here?”

At a later session I may get them to work in the same way with another collection of words: common words with strange spellings or words related to their profession or field of study..

For an on-line interactive version of this exercise see: Classifying vowels.

There are many other ways of working on spelling and pronunciation but this is one I have found particularly effective over the years for achieving results because it encourages students to create and refine their own internal criteria.

© Glenys Hanson 2015. A different version was published on the Une Education Pour Demain website in 2002.

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“Spelling and Pronunciation Exercises: Classifying Vowel Sounds” by Glenys Hanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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6 thoughts on “Classifying English Vowel Sounds

  • Naveed Ahmad

    I am English Teacher. I am from Pakistan. I want to teach English sounds to my students but the problem , that I myself not clear about it. Can you help me ?

  • Cedric Lefebvre

    Just read this article, and it raised a question. Did you usually use sound/colour rectangle charts with the same groups? If you didn’t, why not? and if you did, did the students make connections with the different colours used on the chart?

    • Glenys Hanson Post author

      Sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn’t.

      1) If the group were already familiar with the sound/colour rectangle charts (I used the old American English charts, but these days I’d use:, I’d buy an extra sound/colour chart, cut up the vowel rectangles and put them in an envelope. In turn, each student would take a vowel rectangle and stick it with blu-tack above the appropriate column – under the pictures. I wouldn’t interfere until the group considered they’d got them all correct. They might have the word charts on the wall as a “cheat sheet” or they might not. The images, phonemic symbols and reference words were also all written on plastified cards and blu-tacked to the flip chart sheets. I chose which ones to use depending on the group.For example, with children I only used the images; I rarely used the phonemic syllables because French people are not familiar with them.

      2) If the group had not already used the sound/colour code, I didn’t use the vowel rectangles. These groups were mainly primary school teachers who hadn’t come to learn the Silent Way, but to get some ideas for activities they could use in class and also to brush up on their English – particularly pronunciation. Many of them already knew the phonemic alphabet and the others were keen to learn it. There are lots of fun ways to use the charts above to learn the phonemic syllables. If you ask me nicely, I’ll describe some of them.

      • Cedric

        Thank you for your detailed answer, Glenys! I’ve done a reduced version of this with only French nasal vowels (for students who had specific difficulties with differentiating them), it did wonders.
        I’d be really keen on reading about your fun ways to use these charts to learn phonemic syllables, so would you grant me this one wish? pretty pleease..!
        (and this time I’ll check the “notify me of new comments” box >.<)

        • Glenys Hanson Post author

          Sorry, Cédric, I’ve been so slow at answering this. No excuse – just forgot.

          I described above doing my modified exercise with intermediate students in groups and classifying my selections of words on A4 paper. “Intermediate” meant that they already had a lot of criteria for pronunciation and spelling in English and so had the resources to refine and develop what they already knew.

          Generally, the students I had were totally unfamiliar with the phonemic alphabet so I used flip charts on the wall.

          I not only had the vowel rectangles, but also the phonemic symbols on individual cards I kept in an envelope and also the images in another envelope. That way I could use just the ones I wanted for different exercises.

          After having done the exercise above, I’d stick the phonemic symbols on the flip charts so that it looked something like this: (British pronunciation but I’d often also put the symbol for the American pronunciation of “clock”).

          Step 1
          I’d ask the students to comment on what they saw. The might notice that:
          – the top row has only single symbols; all the others have two,
          – the : is used with long sounds.

          Step 2
          I’d hide one of the symbols in the top row with a blank card and ask them to:
          – write the hidden symbol in the air with a finger (that way I could often spot who was getting it wrong),
          – write it on a piece of paper hidden from their neighbours and then compare what they’d written with their neighbours.
          Then I’d uncover the symbol for them to check.

          Step 3
          With the A4 version, in pairs or small groups:
          – one student would hide a symbol,
          – the others would write it.
          I often left the flip charts on the wall so that they could “cheat” if they felt they needed to.

          Step 4
          I’d remove the flip charts and stick the images on the board (with blu-tack) in the same order and :
          – give the students the envelope with the symbols,
          – ask the students to put the symbols back above the correct image.

          Step 5
          I’d remove everything from the board and:
          – give the students the envelope with the symbols,
          – ask the students to put back the symbols on the board in the same order as before.

          Step 6
          If they were used to working with the sound/color rectangle chart, I’d put it on the wall and:
          – give the students the envelope with the symbols,
          – ask the students to put the symbols on the board in the same order as on the rectangle chart,
          – discuss why:
          – there’s a card (ju:) that isn’t represented on the sound/colour chart,
          – the schwa sound is represented on the sound/color chart but not on the spelling chart,
          – the order of presentation is different in the two charts (different teachers have come up with several other ways of ordering English sounds – all for very good reasons).

          Step 7
          Students would dictate words for the others to write. As I usually didn’t work on the consonant symbols, they would use the normal spelling for consonants.

          By the way, after realising that the first row vowels only appear in closed syllables (ones that end with a consonant), I stopped asking students to dictate individual consonants because it induces an erroneous conception of how English functions. Unfortunately for my students, I had this awareness very late in my career.

          I didn’t always go through all 7 steps and never all on the same day. I also used other exercises inspired by the students’ responses.

          Different exercises to provoke different awarenesses would be necessary for other languages.

          Sometime I’ll write this up as a blog post or article so I can insert pictures and more aesthetic links.