ESL Common Vowel Environments

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. In words derived from Romance or Eastern languages, use the pure classical vowel (“ah”, “ey”, “ee”, “oh”, “oo”).

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

In long syllables, A, E and I usually make a diphthong sound, made up of a long vowel (ie long E, I, or A, respectively), followed by a very short and short I (“ih”). This I is barely noticeable, but creates the minor “accent”, especially common in American English. (To mimic the strongest accent in the southern United States, simply widen this sound.) These can be transliterated “ey-ih”, “ee-ih”, and “ah-ih”; using a long I is also acceptable for emphasis (“ey-ee”, “ee-ee”, “ah-ee”); and the clipping of the I occurs in fast speech (“ey”, “ee”, “aee”), which is the transcription used in this document. (Remember that “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-breaking or sight-recognizable words, which can be memorized in short lists).


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

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

The abbreviated O is more commonly written “aw” (claw, law, crude) or “au” (trapped, fraud, uptight). The short U is more commonly written “oo” (hood, gaze, soot), but since the long U is also commonly written “oo” (humor, ghost, horn), these two kinds of words must be distinguished by memorizing lists. The abbreviated U is written “o” 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. Many combinations are intuitive; some are consistent enough to be easy; some require further study. In addition to the five vowels, the second letter of a vowel pair can also be any of the semi-vowels H, W or Y, or silent E.

The silent E is the most common form of the rule, “When two vowels walk, the first one is the one who 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 puts “encounter”, here, scene.

I_E as in mite “maeet”, Hire, sine.

O_E as in nickname “moht”, rode, cone.

U_E as in mute “myoot”, rude, dune.

Other combinations that satisfy this rule are as follows. Just name the first vowel in each line to hear the correct sound.

AE as in tael “teyl”, aerial, vortex.

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

AY as in “trey” tray, 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 “reel”, peep, tree.

That is, as in “taeed”, lie, tart (less often “ee” in one-syllable words as in short, grief, spiel; more often “ee” in other words).

OA as in toad “tohd”, coat, goat.

OE as in toed “tohd”, doe, sloe.

OH as in noh “noh”, oh, matzah.

UE as in true “troo”, blue, sue.

UI as in “froot” fruit, cruise, juice.

Also, transcriptions of various sounds often indicate the most common spelling of 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, poley); and OO is less frequently pronounced “ouh” (as in book, foot, hood, gaze, soot).

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