ESL Common Vowel Environments

When you memorize the eleven-vowel system, you’re ready for the real question: how can someone quickly choose the correct vowel for each and every syllable? In the same way that native speakers master the fine points of any language: they learn the basic rules of thumb; learn basic exception lists; and guess, without fear, before a new word.

Here are enough rules of thumb for most common English words.

1. Most syllables start with consonants. Think of a short syllable that also ends in a consonant and a long syllable that ends in a vowel (including silent E).

2. In a short syllable, A, E and I, I usually make the short A, E and I sounds (“aa”, “eh”, “ih”).

3. In a short syllable, the O usually makes the long A sound (“ah”), but makes the short O sound in New England (“aw”); and U generally makes the sound of schwa (“uh”).

4. In a long syllable, all the vowels say their names (“ey”, “ee”, “aee”, “oh”, “yoo”), except U, which often changes to long U (“oo”) .

5. In words derived from Romance or Oriental languages, use the classic pure vowels (“ah”, “ey”, “ee”, “oh”, “oo”).

6. In short unstressed syllables, use a schwa if nothing else is indicated.

In long syllables, A, E, and I usually produce a diphthongized sound, composed of a long vowel (namely, long E, I, or A, respectively), followed by a very short short I (“ih”). This I is hardly noticeable, but it creates the minor “twang” especially common in American English. (To mimic the stronger accent of the American South, simply extend this sound.) These can be transcribed as “ey-ih”, “ee-ih” and “ah-ih”; using a long I is also acceptable for emphasis (“ey-ee”, “ee-ee”, “ah-ee”); and I clipping occurs in rapid speech (“ey”, “ee”, “aee”), which is the transcription used here. (Remember that the “h” only indicates the quality of the vowel and is not pronounced.)

That’s the basics! All other vowel sounds are diphthongs, special spellings, or exceptions (rule breakers or high-frequency words, which can be memorized in short lists).


Practice the basic vowel environments in the following sets of words.

The six basic vowel sounds of short syllables appear in the words pat, pet, pit, pot, put, and putt: short A, short E, short I, long A (or short O), short U, and schwa.

The six basic vowel sounds of long syllables appear in silent E words (the E does not sound but serves to lengthen the first vowel, from a distance), as in mate, mete, mite, mote, mute, and moot: Long E, Long I, long A (plus short I), long O, long YU and long U.

The short O is most commonly written “aw” (claw, law, crude) or “au” (trapped, fraud, tense). The short U is most commonly written “oo” (hood, aspect, soot), but since the long U is also commonly written “oo” (mood, ghost, toot), these two word classes must be distinguished by lists of memorization. The short U is written “ou” in the words could, should, would; “ouh” is transcribed to be clearly separate from the other vowels.

Vowels saying their names

The main sound of each pair of vowels must be memorized by heart. Many combinations are intuitive; some are consistent enough to be easy; a few require further study. In addition to the five vowels, the second letter of a vowel pair can also be any of the semivowels H, W, or Y, or the silent E.

Silent E is the most common form of the rule, “When two vowels are walking, the first one speaks.” The first vowel gives its long syllable form (its name), while the second vowel is silent:

A_E as in mate “meyt”, hare, cane.

E_E as in mete “get together”, here, scene.

I_E as in “maeet” mite, rent, sine.

O_E as in mote “moht”, rode, cone.

U_E as in silent “myoot”, rough, dune.

Other combinations that meet this rule are the following. Simply name the first vowel on each line to hear the correct sound.

AE as in tael “teyl”, aerial, maelstrom.

AI as in queue “teyl”, main, straight (rarely “aee” as in aisle, aioli).

AY as in tray “trey”, day, stay (rarely “aee” as in aye, bayou, papaya).

EA as in real “reel”, bead, mean (less often “eh” as in bread, head, weather).

EE as in “reel”, peep, real tree.

IE as in “taeed” tied, lie, cake (less often “ee” in one-syllable words such as shortly, pity, spiel; more often “ee” in other words).

OA as in “tohd” toad, coat, goat.

OE as in toed “tohd”, doe, sloe.

OH as in noh “noh”, oh, matzoh.

EU as in true “troo”, blue, sue.

User interface as in fruit “froot”, cruise, juice.

Also, transcriptions of various sounds usually indicate the most common spellings of the sounds, namely “ah”, “aw”, “ee”, “ey”, “oh”, “oo”. (The other transcriptions are not common English spellings.) EY is less often pronounced “ee” (as in boney, honey, key, limey, pulley); and OO is less often pronounced “ouh” (as in book, foot, hood, look, soot).

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