Teaching Vowels

By Pam Marshalla

Big Magnified SmileQ: My client cannot produce some of the short vowels and I am having a terrible time teaching them to him. He cannot get his tongue in the right positions. Any suggestions?

The problem we have teaching the vowels is that most of us have been training to think that it is all about tongue position.  Tongue position is important when adults differentiate their vowels.  But when children are learning all the vowels in infancy, it is the jaw that makes the difference and allows all the vowels to come in.  Therefore I focus on jaw position when teaching any of the vowels.

The basic way I teach all the vowels is to build them off the high front vowel and the high back vowel.  That’s Long E (as in “eat”) and Long Oo (as in “school”).

Front Vowels

  • Start by having the client produce Long E (assuming he can).  Exaggerate it with a big smile.
  • Then have the client lower and elevate his jaw while he holds his tongue in the exaggerated E position.
  • As the jaw goes slowly up-and-down the vertical scale (from top to bottom), he should “hit” every front vowel. This is because the tongue is in the same position and jaw height is what brings the vowels in.
  • Then teach the client to hear every front vowel that occurs as the jaw elevates and depresses. This is ear training.
  • Teach the client that the jaw going up and down is like a train traveling on a track.  Each vowel along the way is a different stop.  The client has to learn where to stop, and he has to learn to hear the front vowel that occurs when he stops at each point.

Back Vowels

  • Start by having the client produce Long Oo (assuming he can).  Make sure the lips are very round (puckered).
  • Then have the client lower and elevate his jaw while he holds his mouth in the exaggerated Oo position.
  • As the jaw goes slowly up-and-down the vertical scale (from top to bottom), he should “hit” every back vowel.  This is because the mouth is in the same position and jaw height is what brings the vowels in.
  • Then teach the client to hear every back vowel that occurs as the jaw elevates and depresses. This is ear training.
  • Teach the client that the jaw going up and down is like a train traveling on a track.  Each vowel along the way is a different stop.  The client has to learn where to stop, and he has to learn to hear each back vowel that occurs when he stops at each point.

12 thoughts on “Teaching Vowels”

  1. I work with a child who presents with severe apraxia (7 years old) and is just beginning to expand his phonetic repertoire and CV, VC, CVCV combinations
    He is able to produce several short vowels and long vowel /o/
    I cannot elicit a long /e/ which is so important in developing his core functional vocabulary
    Any suggestions?
    Thanks so much

  2. Melanie- The info I gave above on the front vowels would be my answer again. Have him hit and hold a Long E, then hole that tongue position while lowering the jaw one millimeter at a time until you hear /e/.

  3. When working on vowels that involve lip rounding (and with lip rounding in general), what are some ways to elicite lip rounding when the client cannot do so. I am working with a 6 yo client with a mild CP that demonstrates a very weak pucker. For more background, during blowing activities there is very little breath support and his tongue always escapes through his lips. His lips do not come forward, and his tongue continuously elevates up and therefore produces what sounds like /n/. Any suggestions? Lip rounding is a major struggle here!!

  4. The easiest most direct way to get the lips to round is to use resistance. Pull the lips back starting at midline and stretching them to the corners and back into the cheeks. Tell the lint, “I am pulling your lips back. You push them forward.” You are putting a slow stretch on the orbicular otis, and you are encouraging it to contract (to pucker).

  5. I have a client who produces a long “I” sound for the long “A” sound. This is such a subtle difference and so hard to teach. Any advice? He just turned 5. Thanks!

    1. Research shows that the vowels are learned relative to one another. In other words, don’t just try to teach that one vowel, teach them all. Work on all of them in isolation and teach your client to hear the difference between them.

      But the “Long I” and the “Long A’ are diphthongs (2 vowels in sequence) so teach all the diphthongs relative to one another. Slow them down considerably so your client can hear the differences and similarities.

      Also use minimal pairs with I and A— “Bye” vs. “Bay” and so forth.

  6. My son just turned 5 and consistently turns the short-a in words like “man, can, Sam,” into a long-a words akin to “main, cane, same,” etc. He can differentiate between all these words but doesn’t know how to pronounce them with a short-a sound. It is primarily in words with an “a” followed by an “n” or “m.” He can say “cat,” etc. without any issue. How can I help him?

  7. I am working with a student, age 5, who pronounces both /o/ and /u/ vowels with a tense tongue/throat, so they end up sounding distorted. She already rounds her lips. The /o/ vowel is most similar to the French pronunciation of “u”, as in rounded lips but saying /i/. Sometimes her lips deviate to the right as well when making these vowels only, but not all the time. In isolation, when asked to round her lips they move symmetrically.
    We’ve already tried facilitating contexts, shaping from other vowels (e.g. start with /a/ then slowly close jaw and round lips), feedback about relaxing tongue and throat, placement cues to make sure her tongue tip is not touching anything, and my pronouncing them both ways and having her try to hear the difference/mimic mine. Any suggestions?

  8. Hi, I have a child with learning difficulties and a rare syndrome who produces ‘e’ as ‘a’ (U.K) short sounds. advice please for getting ‘e’ as single sound?

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