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How to Teach Vowel Sounds so Kids Will Remember

by Sarah K Major February 04, 2016 4 Comments

How to Teach Vowel Sounds so Kids Will Remember

In most cases, when it comes to reading struggles, children have the same problems across all grade levels. If a child does not understand something in Kindergarten, just getting older is not going to solve the problem.

Short vowel sounds are a common weakness for struggling readers

When I was a Title 1 reading teacher, one weakness shared by most of my students was distinguishing between short vowel sounds in words. My students had a hard time memorizing word spellings, and because they were very weak on vowel sound discrimination, their spelling tests were torture for them. It followed that reading was torture for them as well. Here is how I helped them

How to Teach Vowels Effectively:

1. Use Visuals

The first thing I did for these kids was show them the visuals for the vowels and shared a shortened version of the story for each letter. For the visuals to be effective, the object has to match the shape of the letter. The visuals worked beautifully to help cement the sound of the vowel. Using visuals correctly will make all the difference for visual, right-brained, and kinesthetic learners!


Alphabet Teaching Cards

Alphabet Teaching Cards include basic vowel sounds and provide a mini-lesson and activity on the reverse of each card.

2. Use Hand Motions

I also taught hand motions for each vowel. For some children, even as old as middle school, the hand motions were what helped them figure out a word they didn't know. They grew to associate the body motion with the shape of the letter and also the sound they heard themselves saying. Over time, they no longer needed to make the hand motion - sounds had become automatic. Hand motions are essentials for tactile and kinesthetic learners!

Here are the hand motions for our vowels:

hand motions for teaching vowels


3. Use Stories

For A, we make an anthill with our fingers, and then touch thumbs to make the tunnel Abner made as he tunneled through the anthill For E, I asked the kids to make a fist and notice the lowercase E their fingers made. For I, we had an upraised hand similar to the feathers on Ike’s head. The O was Oscar’s wide open mouth, and the U was Uncle Ule’s upside-down umbrella. Stories are great for beginners and for visual, right-brained, and kinesthetic learners.

How to teach vowels & other letters using visuals and stories

Stories along with visuals and hand motions will make it nearly impossible for a child NOT to learn all letter sounds, and especially vowel sounds! (See Alphabet Tales for stories).

Crafts and Activities in Alphabet Tales

In the back of Alphabet Talesyou will find a hands-on activity of craft great for your kinesthetic learner.


Teaching Advanced Sound Spellings

In addition to short vowel sounds, words in our language are chock full of advanced vowel spellings just waiting to trip up struggling readers! (Example: ough, igh, ai, ou, etc.) The most effective way to teach children to easily decode words is to teach them how to spell the sounds they hear in words. For example, long A is spelled 8 different ways. The best way to teach visual, right-brained and kinesthetic learners is to show them all the ways you can spell that sound and then practice with real words.

Sound Spelling Teaching Cards make it easy for you to teach and easier for them to learn

Tactile Activity for Practicing Vowel Sounds

Having introduced the vowel sounds and their letters, and having established our hand motions for those vowels, move on to actually using these newly-acquired tools! We played games together to practice listening for the vowel sound in words.

Listen for the Vowel:

Say one word at a time. Students will do the hand motion for the vowel they hear. This activity will attach a movement essential for kinesthetic learners and will also allow you to do a quick visual check to see if every child correctly identified the vowel.

Sample word list:

Sand, tent, with, bus, off, Tom, bat, best, fresh, sun, punt, shop, west, nod, fun, fin, pen, pun, pan, pin, hop.

If you need a formal assessment for your students’ knowledge of vowel sounds, just have them number a paper, listen to each word, and write the vowel they heard inside each word.

Play Quick Draw:

To practice listening for sounds in words, and especially for distinguishing between vowel sounds, I found playing Quick Draw was very helpful. Each child has a white board, or if you are as lucky as I was, you will have enough room on your big white board to accommodate all the kids in your group. Each child stands with his or her back to the white board, marker ready, and then listens while I say the word. OR give each child a personal white board.

  • “The word is CLASS.”
  • “Sound it with me.” The kids sound with me as I break apart the word for them, “C-L-A-SS.” I use the motion for A as we sound in order to give them a visual cue for the vowel. I am also using fingermapping (see how to fingermap here), which gives them an instant visual map for the structure of the word. 
  • “Sound and Write!” This is the cue for the children to quickly turn and write their word as they say each sound. This part is critical. They need to say the sounds out loud and hear themselves saying the sounds, at the same time they are seeing their hand write the sounds.
  • I do a quick visual check for accuracy and then move on to another word. If there is an error, I do not say the name of the missed letter, rather we SOUND OUT the word as the child is looking at the word they wrote so they can identify the missing sound and make the correction.
  • More Tips:

  • If the child is reading for you and mispronounces a word, just cue him with the hand motion for the vowel sound.
  • If you suspect your child is a kinesthetic learner, have him or her make the hand motion for the vowel sound as often as possible.
  • Play Word Morph: start with one word, and then change a sound with each new word:
  • EX: BAT, BIT, BUT, BOT (bought), BUT. Mix the words up so they are not in a predictable order and have the child give you the hand signal for the vowel again.

    You may also use word pairs for quick vowel sound practice: CUT/KIT, GNAT/NET, BET/BIT, COT/CUFF, NIT/NET. Hint: E and I are frequently taken for each other, as are O and U.


    The vowel cards shown here can all be found in our Alphabet Teaching Cards




    Sarah K Major
    Sarah K Major


    Sarah's absolute belief in every child’s ability to learn, and her passion to empower the child by supporting his/her own unique giftedness have fueled her life’s work and provided a new pathway for children to succeed academically.

    4 Responses


    July 19, 2016

    How I can make my students understand the difference between the words have ai and a_e while writing?


    May 31, 2016

    Thanks so much for the lessons.

    jyoti kashyap
    jyoti kashyap

    May 28, 2016

    Very nice. Thanks

    Donna Shockey
    Donna Shockey

    March 23, 2016

    How do I get the visual for vowel cards?

    Leave a comment

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