• Paul Wade

Phonics 2.0 - Long Vowel Sounds

We have already taken a brief look at phonics and short sounds. Just to recap, synthetic phonics is the preferred system in the UK (and many other English speaking countries) for teaching young children to decode words for reading and to build words for spelling. It is not the perfect solution for either of these jobs, but it is something that most parents of 4-7 year olds will likely encounter at some point during this period of home learning. (You can read my first post on phonics here.)

Long vowel sounds (also known as digraphs) are, almost, but not exactly, what they say on the tin. For the most part, they are phonemes that are constructed from (usually) two vowels and that take a bit longer to say. Simple examples include the ‘oo’ in food, the ‘ea’ in team and the ‘ai’ in train. More complex examples might be the ‘i_e’ in fine, the ‘a_e’ in late and the ‘o_e’ in bone (more on them later).

You also have some exceptions. Some long vowel clusters actually only make a short sound, such as the ‘oo’ in book (in received pronunciation British English, but not in all English dialects and accents). There are also some vowel consonant blends that make long sounds, such as the ‘ow’ in cow and the ‘ough’ in plough. Some make multiple different sounds depending the word in which you find them – my favourite is ‘ie’ which has as many as six different sound options. Some exceptions are much more common than others.

Let us go back now to that first set. The standard long vowel pairs include (note that the y sound is treated like a vowel, not a consonant):

ai, ee, oo, ou, oa, ea, ie, ue, ay, oy

With each of these, you generally hear only one sound, because the two components blend together to make something new. For the most part the above sounds are pronounced as the names of the following five letters:

A, E, I, O, U

For a clear guide to saying these, try this little number from the 1980s – thank you Freeez.

There are then a number of vowel sounds that rely on a split digraph. In these, a short vowel sound is turned into a long one through the addition of an otherwise silent ‘e’ on the end of a word.

So, for example, the short ‘i’ in rid is turned into a long one in ride. Long vowel sounds like this are called split digraphs, because the two vowels are split by an intervening consonant. Other examples include: mate, gene, fine, pole and tune. Again, the long vowel sound is from the vowel in the middle of the word and is generally pronounced as the letter name (watch the Freeez video again – go on).

You then have a few common and less common exceptions where consonants pair with vowels, but still make a long vowel sound. The ‘or’ in for, the ‘er’ in finger and the ‘ur’ in fur are all classified as vowel sounds because you don’t really pronounce the final ‘r’ and instead drag the sound out slightly to make it long. You also have some slightly mad sounds such as the ‘ough’ in plough that I mentioned above. For reference, that ‘ough’ makes the same sound as ‘ow’, but in other contexts can make an ‘uff’ sounds. See? Mad!

The biggest issue with long vowel sounds is that they can all be pronounced a host of different ways, depending on which version of English you are speaking. In London, for example, there is almost no distinction between 'ou' and 'oa', whereas in Northern Ireland 'are' and 'or' can sound identical. New Zealanders asking you for a 'pin' may actually be requesting a 'pen'. And in many American dialects, almost all vowel sounds are effectively long, as they can also be in the West of England. But I am muddying the waters. I have largely focused on British English received pronunciation here, largely because it is near enough my native tongue. I make full allowance for variations and I am very happy to take individual requests for guidance in as many accents as I can convincingly manage.

To recap:

- Long vowel sounds usually involve the combination of one or more vowels or consonants

- They make a range of sounds, but frequently the letter names are the long vowel sound

- Some long vowels, as written, make a range of sounds and may even make a short sound

- Split digraphs are also called ‘magic e’ words

- Listen to Freeez to help you

Hopefully that has cleared up a few of the issues surrounding long vowels in phonics. There will be two more in the series. One for blending sounds into whole words and another for prefixes and suffixes. Excited? I know I am.

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