problem solving

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.