English vowel sounds: there are 20 ways to pronounce them and only five letters for writing them. So learning or teaching the pronunciation of English vowels requires a detailed table of spelling rules and examples. Continuing to teach English around Brighton, I produce handouts for the English language that don’t appear to have been catered for. I couldn’t find a complete summary or explanation of vowel pronunciation online. Pronunciation explanations or exercises are usually very basic, for young learners or beginners, and rarely show all the different sounds in a table. When I taught in the UAE the only useful resource we had was a book containing this information, and I believe it helped learners a lot. So I have reproduced the idea here, either for learners to study or as a point of reference for teachers.
How this is useful
Though the English language only has five written vowels, there are 20 different vowel sounds. Learning the written form of five vowels won’t help, as these 20 sounds are made up of a wide variety of different spellings. The tables below show the pronunciation of the different vowel sounds with examples to help identify where your pronunciation needs more work. The tables include what are commonly called short vowels and long vowels, and a brief explanation of the schwa. To hear the different sounds pronounced, please use this chart.
Pronunciation of short vowels
Short vowels are usually formed when a vowel is followed by a single consonant, which ‘closes’ the sound. They are short, light sounds. There are around 1,000 exceptions to the spelling rules of short vowels, however.
|/æ/||a||mat, pat, lap|
|/ɛ/||e||met, pet, let|
|/ɪ/||i||bin, pit, lip|
|/ɒ/||o||rot, pot, lot|
|/ʌ/||u||fun, sun, luck|
Pronunciation of long vowels
Some of the below may be considered short vowels (only half are dipthongs, technically the longer vowel sound), but I have divided the short vowels above from the ones with more complex pronunciation and spelling. Long (or complex) vowels are formed by combining more than one vowel (mean); following a vowel with more than one consonant (mind); or following a vowel and consonant with a silent e (mice). The combinations of vowels and consonants used to produce long vowels are massively varied and do not necessarily relate to the basic vowel sound they belong to (for instance, bird uses a long e variation). This list is a basic starting point to identify the overall pronunciation of the long vowels – either showing vowel/consonant combinations or ‘vowel + C + e’ to show silent e forms:
|/eɪ/||ai, ay, a+c+e||wait, day, late|
|/eə/||ai, a+c +e, e+c+e||air, care, where|
|/iː/||ee, ea, y, ie, i+c+e,||sheep, meat, dandy, fiend, elite|
|/ɪə/||ee, ea, e+c+e||steer, near, here|
|/ɜ:/||er, or, ir, ur||her, word, bird, hurt|
|/aɪ/||i, ig, igh, y, i+c+e,||I, sign, fight, dry, ice|
|/u:/||o, oo, ough||do, doom, through|
|/ɔɪ/||oi, oy||coin, toy|
|/əʊ/||oa, o+c+e||boat, note|
|/ɔ:/||o, oa, or, oo, o+c+e||for, oar, worn, door, more|
|/juː/||ew, ue, u+c+e||few, due, cube|
All the vowel sounds in a list
From top to bottom of the list of vowel sounds, here are 19 similar words to help you see the difference:
For an alternative list and further practice, visit my main English language learning website, English Lessons in Brighton.
What is the schwa?
The 20th vowel sound, and the most common sound in the English language, is the schwa /ə/, an unpronounced sound that represents the majority of unstressed vowels. Avoid trying to pronounce the schwa – it appears when you don’t make an effort. If you imagine the unstressed vowel has no sound, the schwa will come (a bit like an ‘uh’). If you produce the schwa properly, you will sound more natural.