Vowels are one of the two groups of letters in the English alphabet. The other group is consonants. There are five vowel letters: ‘a, ‘e,’ ‘i’, ‘o’, and ‘u.’ Vowels are very common in English and can be found in almost every word and syllable.
What are vowels in English?
Vowels are letters that are used in almost every word in the English language. Even when a comment isn’t spelled with a vowel, it almost always includes a vowel sound. Take the word ‘rhythm,’ for example. Even though the written word doesn’t have any vowel letters, we pronounce the ‘y’ like an /i/ or /u/, such as ‘ri-thm’ or ‘ri-thum.’
Vowel letters are one of the two types of letters in the English alphabet. The other type is called consonants; they make up most of our language’s letters. Whether a letter is classified as a vowel or consonant depends on how we articulate its sound.
- Usually, words are made up of both vowels and consonants. However, the word Iouea (a genus of sea sponges) is the exception. This word contains all five vowels and no other letters.
- The words abstemious (the act of moderately indulging in food and drink) and facetious (finding humor in a serious situation) contain all five vowels in order.
What are the 5 vowel letters?
As we mentioned, there are 5 different vowel letters in the English language. These are ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’, and ‘u’. Sometimes, ‘y’ and ‘w’ can be considered vowels. We’ll explain a bit more about that later!
And what’s more, the sounds that the vowels make often fall into two main groups: short vowel sounds and long vowel sounds. We can see these differences in how they are pronounced in particular words. See these examples:
- Words that contain short vowels include bat, cat, bed, leg, but, bug, bog, hip, pop, and sip.
- Words that contain long vowels include haze, he, she, hope, human, cute and equal.
As you might have guessed from these examples, the way to tell if a vowel sound is long or short is whether it sounds the same as the name of its letter!
What are some examples of words that contain more than one vowel?
Let’s take a look at a few examples of words that contain one or more vowels:
In this simple example, we can see that it contains the vowels a and e. Note that when we pronounce the word ‘apple,’ we tend to stress the a in the first syllable but not the ‘e’ at the end of the second syllable. This unstressed ‘e’ is an example of vowel reduction.
Let’s take a look at another example:
In this word, two vowel letters are situated next to each other. The two vowels have formed a vowel digraph and together make one sound, which is the long ‘a’ sound in this case. Sometimes, we can say, ‘the first vowel does the talking,’ which means that, together, the letters make the long vowel sound of the first letter. However, this isn’t always the case. For example, in the word ‘noise,’ the ‘o’ and ‘i’ together make the /oi/ vowel sound.
Why are ‘w’ and ‘y’ sometimes considered vowels?
Earlier on, we mentioned that ‘w’ and ‘y’ are sometimes considered to be vowel letters. But how come?
That’s because both ‘w’ and ‘y’ are what we call semi-vowels. These are letters that are sometimes vowels but sometimes aren’t. It all depends on the situation. Let’s look at some examples to help us make sense of this.
The letter ‘y’ is considered a semi-vowel when it’s placed at the end or middle of a word or syllable or that word has no other vowels. For example:
The argument for classifying ‘y’ as a consonant (which most do) is based on this: When ‘y’ is a vowel, it’s just an ‘I’ or an /ee/ sound. These examples show how each ‘y’ sounds similar to the ‘i’ long vowel sound.
‘W’ can be considered a vowel when used in certain English words with a Welsh origin. These include ‘cwm,’ to refer to a steep-walled semicircular basin in a mountain, and ‘cwtch,’ which means a hug.
Why do we have vowels?
But with all this talk of vowel letters, we haven’t thought much about why we have them in the first place! But in fact, vowels play an essential role in our language.
Vowels and consonants are both speech sounds. Speech sounds existed in speech before letters were used to record the sounds in writing. Because the English language is partly based on the Roman language, which only had the five vowel letters ‘ a, ‘e,’ ‘i’, ‘o’, and ‘u,’ over time, we have combined vowels and consonants or pairs of consonants to make digraphs or trigraphs to represent all of the sounds.
To this day, vowels are essential as they form the basis for many of the words in the English language. So it is because vowels are necessary for creating syllables and therefore being able to articulate different sounds and words. It is why, even though they’re the smaller of the two-letter groups, you’d be hard-pressed to find a word that doesn’t have any.
And for this reason, vowels are also the starting place for teaching children how to read and write. Once children have mastered vowels, they’ll be able to recognize patterns in words and read and write with greater ease.
When do children learn about vowels?
Children begin to learn the alphabet during the early years/foundation stages in school and may start to identify the letters ‘a’, ‘e,’ ‘i’, ‘o’, and ‘u’ as vowels as they progress through KS1.
As children learn to read and write, they will come across CVC words (words that follow the pattern of consonant sound, vowel sound, consonant sound) and CCVC words (words that follow the pattern of consonant sound, consonant sound, vowel sound, consonant sound). In addition, as they progress through the phonic phases or levels, children will begin to learn vowel digraphs, such as ‘oo,’ ‘ie,’ ‘ai,’ and ‘ea.’
Vowel digraphs are the combinations of vowels, vowels, and consonants that make one sound. The sounds they make are different from the sound each letter makes on its own. For example:
- The ‘o’ in ‘hot’ makes a different sound to the digraph ‘oo’ in ‘book’ and a different sound to the digraph ‘oo’ in ‘boot.’
Vowel digraphs are also important when learning about homophones – words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. For example, ‘heal’ and ‘heel’ both contain the vowel sound /ee/ but use the graphemes ‘ea’ and ‘ee,’ respectively. Children typically begin learning about homophones in year 2.