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Why Are Vowels So Hard for My Child?

By Ginny Osewalt

Question: My second grader has trouble with vowels. When she’s reading aloud or writing, words like mess and stuck become miss and stock. Any idea what’s going on? What can I do to help?

Answer:

Vowels are tricky, so it’s not surprising that some early readers have trouble with them. It has to do with how the sounds are formed.

Consonants (letters like p, t, and l) make sounds that are crisper and clearer than vowel sounds. When you make the sound, you use your lips, tongue, or teeth to stop or limit airflow. To see what I mean, say the words pie, tie, and lie. Notice how your mouth moves when you say the first sounds.

Vowel sounds work differently. You can hold them until you run out of breath. They’re not as precise as most consonant sounds. Take the words pat, pet, and pit. They have short vowels. See how your mouth moves when you say those sounds.

Did you notice how there are only small differences in your mouth movements? Many kids have trouble picking up on these differences. And it can be really tricky for kids who have trouble with reading.

With support, kids can get better at short vowel sounds. One way I help my students is by using hand movements as they say the sounds. You can use these gestures at home when your child is sounding out spelling words.

Here are some examples:

For the short vowel sound in pat

Put your index finger under your chin. Say this short vowel sound as your chin drops and pushes against your finger.

For the short vowel sound in pet

Put one of your index fingers into each corner of your mouth. Say this short vowel sound while stretching your mouth back toward your ears.

For the short vowel sound in pit

Wrinkle your nose and touch it with your index finger, like you’re dotting a letter i. Say the sound as you “dot” your nose.

For the short vowel sound in pot

Open your mouth and form a circle with your lips. Say this short vowel sound while circling your lips with your index finger.

For the short vowel sound in putt

Make two fists and put them together with your thumbs up. Hold them a few inches away from your face. Say this short vowel sound while moving your fists upward.

These exercises are helpful because they use multiple senses. Many programs for struggling readers use this approach.

If you’re concerned about your child’s reading, talk to the teacher about what might help. Find out how your child is doing with reading in class and if there are strategies you can try at home. If the teacher has concerns, too, talk about next steps together.

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