Vowel Practice – Phonemic Awareness
Updated: Jun 9
Short vowel sounds can be soooooo TRICKY! Often, and especially for youngsters, short vowels sound really similar. For this reason, intentionally adding vowel intensive practice into phonemic awareness routines is pretty important and can be done relatively simply.
I prefer using a multi-sensory approach to teaching as often as I’m able. And phonemic awareness activities (along with phonics) are a great place to add in some multi-sensory elements.
Adding simple motions to each short vowel sound is one of the simplest ways to incorporate multi-sensory instruction into your phonemic awareness and phonics routines. The kinesthetic, or movement, piece adds another connection for kids as they train their brain to learn sounds. It also adds a visual piece of information that students can pull from when trying to decipher these tricky short vowel sounds.
For each vowel, assign and (here’s the key) consistently use the same motion. There is not a “correct” motion for each vowel, so if you come up with your own that’s great! It needs to be something comfortable for you so that you’ll start to use the motion often. Here’s what I use:
a — Use one finger (I use my pointer/index finger) to pull down on your chin, mimicking what the mouth does when making the short a sound.
e — With one hand, use your thumb and pointer fingers to gently push back on your cheeks, forcing your mouth to widen for the short e sound.
i — Scrunch your nose and pretend to itch it. Not only does itch start with the short i sound, but the scrunched nose also helps students mimic the nasally short i sound.
o — Simply circle your mouth with your finger. The mouth gets round in order to make the short o sound, and the letter looks a whole lot like a circle as yet another reminder (especially when getting into the phonics piece of vowel practice).
u — There are two options I have used, depending on the students I’m working with. The first, continuing with my tendency to use the motions also as a reminder of how the sound is made, is to gently push on my stomach with my hand/fist. For more rambunctious students that don’t handle this motion well, I simply point up with my finger, since the word up begins with the short u sound.
Copy my motions (here’s a free printable version of the motions I use), or create your own! I’ve seen plenty of teachers use motions that correspond more with words beginning in the vowel sound, like pointing up for short u or pretending to bite into an apple for short a, and they work like a charm as well! Again, consistency is the most important piece of the puzzle with this strategy.
Adding some extra, intentional, and focused short vowel practice into your phonemic awareness routine is so simple and easy. Better yet, it really could only take about 3-5 minutes AT MOST to incorporate. This short time-frame makes it a great filler when waiting in line or when a lesson happens to finish earlier than expected.
Here’s how it’s done as a true phonemic awareness activity, it’s purpose to help students decipher the differences between each short vowel sound:
Start with just the vowel sounds. The teacher makes a sound and motions, the students repeat the sound AND motion. It’s really important for the students to both create the sound out loud and do the motion. Once students are comfortable, the teacher can make the sound only on occasion, but the students should make BOTH the sound and the motion in their response.
Add one consonant sound after the vowel. The consonant needs to come after the vowel sound in order to accurately mimic the way English typically works: vowels make their short sound when a consonant comes after the vowel (e.g. at), not when the consonant comes before the vowel (e.g. go). These are syllables, not words so nonsense syllables that are not also real words should be added into the mix. The students will listen to the syllable (the two sounds) and repeat back ONLY the vowel sound while making its motion. Stick with just two sounds within the dictated syllables until students are consistently able to pick out only the vowel sound and repeat it back along with the motion.
Add another consonant sound before the vowel. Make your syllables into CVC syllables, mixing both real words with nonsense syllables (e.g. got, sag, rit, sug, bug). After the teacher says the syllable aloud, students should repeat back, again, ONLY the vowel sound while making the motion.
Go through the above steps in order for each lesson as students are learning and just beginning to practice. Stick with just step 1 for a few days, then add on step 2 for a few more days (or even weeks depending on your students and how often you’re practicing this way), and finally start going through all three steps.
Here is a free printable with examples of words and syllables to use for each step outlined above as well as a sample lesson plan to show the quick back-and-forth that occurs between teacher and students when doing this activity.
Eventually, students will be ready to extend their vowel practice even further:
Add in blends and digraphs so that students practice pinpointing those vowel sounds among even more sounds.
Play with the sounds and syllables! Mix up the lengths of the syllables dictated, sometimes giving just the vowel sound, then jumping into a three-sound syllable, back to two sounds, then again to three, and so on adding blends to some and digraphs to some others. This will allow students to isolate the vowel sounds without being able to predict where in the syllable it will be heard.
Dictate two-syllable words, having the students repeat back the vowel in each syllable with it’s motion. For example, the teacher says “hiphop” and the students say “/i/” while making its motion followed immediately by “/o/” while making its motion. As mentioned before, these can also be nonsense along with real two-syllable words that use only short vowels.
The most important aspect of this entire lesson when considering the benefits of a multi-sensory approach is that students hear the sound (from the teacher) and then simultaneously say that sound aloud while making the motion.
From a phonemic awareness standpoint, the most important part of this lesson is to stick to just saying and repeating sounds (with motions) and to avoid showing students the letters on the board or on flashcards. Once a letter is seen, the lesson becomes a phonics lesson rather than a phonemic awareness lesson.
That being said, students should also get focused vowel practice for the same reasons mentioned above during phonics lessons. This not only helps them isolate those short vowel sounds, but also helps students practice matching the sounds to their symbol/letter. I’ve explained how to use this same method as a phonics lesson in another post.
Doing this short vowel practice may seem a bit simple for older students to benefit from; however, I use this at least 2 or 3 times a week with the 4th and 5th grade students that I work with because they still need some practice deciphering those short vowel sounds in their reading and writing. When I taught first grade, I would use this more often, if not daily. Short vowels can be tricky for all ages of learners!
Try this out with your students and let me know in the comments how it went! I’d love to also hear your ideas for adjusting this lesson, or even ways that you incorporate short vowel practice into your day!