Those Tricky Short I and Short E Sounds: 7 Tips for Helping Your Student Master Short Vowel Sounds



7 Tips for Helping Your Student Master Short Vowel Sounds

struggling readers

Those Tricky Short I and Short E Sounds!

One of the very first things students need to master also happens to be one of the most difficult for many of them, the short vowel sounds. Short vowels are introduced very early in level one of an Orton-Gillingham lesson plan or with any reading intervention program for that matter.

While every student is different, probably the most difficult distinction for many struggling readers is between the short e and short I sound. It is useful to note that some children similarly struggle with short i and a. The same general tips apply.

1. Divide and Conquer: Try not to teach these two phonemes back to back. In fact, it is often best to separate the introduction of short vowel sounds that weren’t previously mastered by several review lessons or lessons covering other concepts. By separating the introduction of these easily confusable sounds, students are able to gain proficiency with one before muddying the waters with a 2nd sound.

2. Use a Mirror and All Their Senses: Have the child use a mirror to learn how their mouth looks and feels when saying the sounds, as well as learning the sound it makes. “I makes you grin, E drops your chin” is a great verbal reminder. When making the short I sound, the student’s teeth are typically very close together, perhaps only enough to fit a fingernail in between. The corners of the mouth are pulled back in a smile. When making the short e sound, the chin drops slightly, the mouth opens a bit more, about enough to fit the tip of one finger, and the corners of the mouth relax.

3. Key words Matter: It is very important with any short vowel sound to use a key word that is easily distinguishable and in which the targeted sound is easily heard and identified. Often these are NOT the words that appear on commercially designed alphabet strips, flash cards and phonics materials. This is particularly important when dealing with students with regional accents. Short I is easily heard with the key word itch or itchy. Avoid words like igloo (often pronounced “eegloo”) or words in which the vowel sound is in the medial position like pig. For the short e sound, edge or Ed works very well as a key word. Avoid words like egg (often pronounced “ay-g”) or elephant (the e can be very tricky to separate from the l sound). I have found it helpful to make use of materials that used elephant by renaming him “Ed the Elephant”.

4. Pronunciation Matters: It is very important to make sure that the teacher, volunteers and any helpers are pronouncing the vowel sounds correctly. In addition to making sure the child can hear the difference, make sure the child is also saying the sounds correctly. This will prove very important when the time comes for spelling words with short vowel I and e. When initially learning short vowel sounds, avoid words ending in n and m as they can somewhat distort the short vowel sound. Later in the learning sequence, begin to include words ending in n and m as well. Articulate the word very clearly for writing. It is important to be aware of how your regional accent or the accent of your student may have an impact on pronunciation and make distinguishing between these two sounds more difficult.

5. Lots and Lots of Listening: Mastering the short vowels is not just a matter of training students to see a letter and say that sound, but really training their ears to distinguish these different sounds. Doing lots of phonemic awareness activities such as picture sorts with words that contain the targeted vowel sounds is a great center or even direct instructional activity. Using vowel sticks can enable an entire class to participate in choosing between 2 or 3 or even more vowel sounds in response to a teacher prompt such as a word, picture or sound. This is both a practice activity and a simple check for the teacher regarding which children may be struggling with this concept.
6. Use Hand Signals: You may find yourself doing this unconsciously when a child makes an error with a vowel sound, but a hand signal is often an additional layer of support which allows us to prompt or correct a child without providing the sound for them. For example, moving your finger in a circle around the mouth for the short o sound, or pointing to the corner of the mouth for the short i. This is also a really helpful tool for times when your student might feel uncomfortable with more obvious help.

7. Practice Makes Permanent: Short vowel sounds are, perhaps more than any other skill, not a teach-it and forget-it matter. Extensive targeted practice, occasional reteaching , and lots and lots of review and reminders are necessary. Utilizing multiple strategies such as a mirror, using strong key words to remind students of correct vowel sounds, and playing review games are all winning strategies. Fly swatter games (students slap the right word or picture based on the targeted sound or using a double sided fly swatter), board games, card games such as Uno or Go Fish that ask students to identify the letter, match the sound, read or spell words are all excellent practice.

struggling readers

Mastering these foundational basic skills is essential to the continuing development of a child’s reading and writing skills. I have noticed that often times, older students that struggle with reading and writing are lacking proficiency in phonemic awareness skills and short vowel sounds, but are able to hide it due to their visual memory or other strengths. For older students, it is important to take into consideration their large sight vocabulary of CVC words. Utilizing nonsense words (or single syllables from longer words) with these same strategies can insure that this crucial skill is mastered.

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  1. Great tips, Thanks! Funny though, my OG training from IMSE as well as the resources they provided us with have igloo as the I key word, an igloo is on the vowel intensive cards, the card decks, etc…

  2. Igloo is a common key word. In my training, we were taught to use itch or itchy for short i. Personally, I find that to be a cleaner short i sound than igloo. Thanks for reading!

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