Breaking the spelling spell

How to guess what sound an alphabetic vowel makes (most of the time)

James W. Hedges

Not long ago, a student asked me: “How do we know the word ‘Peter’ is pronounced ‘/peetuh/’ and not ‘/pettuh/’?”

Of course, if the student has had the exposure to that extensive listening we advise as teachers, this would not be a problem. But what if they haven’t?

Reading English can be a confusing business. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, while there are 44 phonemes (or unique vocal sounds) that can be written with these letters. This means that when we see written words, it can be difficult to guess how to pronounce them, especially given the many famous quirks and inconsistencies of English spelling.

Let’s start with vowels. First of all, we need to separate vowel letters (a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y) from vowel sounds (the phonemes we make without stopping the flow of breath out of our mouths). We all know the vowel letters in English: a, e, i, o, and u (and sometimes, of course, y). These letters, alone or in combination with other letters indicate the 20 vowels sounds of the English language. Clearly these little letters have some heavy lifting to do.

Vowel letters make different sounds and some of these can be divided into ‘short’ and ‘long’ sounds. The ‘short’ sounds are the /a/ in apple, the /e/ in egg, the /i/ in insect, the /o/ in octopus, and the /u/ in umbrella.

The ‘long’ sound is often described as ‘the letter saying its name’ – the /ay/ in able, the /ee/ in equal, the /eye/ in ice-cream, the /oh/ in oval, the /you/ in university. But when reading a word, how can we know which sound the vowel letter is making?

There’s a really simple rule we can follow to know whether to use the short or long vowel sound. Look for double letters. That is, double consonants following a vowel. If you see a double consonant, the vowel letter before is making its short sound. If you see a single consonant, the vowel is making its long sound.

Short sound Long sound

Tapped Taped

Dinner Diner

Holly Holy

Cutter Cuter

As with any rule, there are exceptions. A couple of the most important ones: to make the long ‘e’ sound, we almost always use a double ‘ee’ before a single consonant. So we can modify the rule like this:

Short sound Long sound

Felling Feeling

We also don’t use a double ‘k’, after a short vowel—we use ‘ck’ instead. So again, we need to slightly modify the rule:

Short sound Long sound

Backing Baking

The letter ‘v’ doesn’t seem to follow this rule - you might well shiver if you fell into an icy river. Note that we don’t spell these words as ‘shivver’ or ‘rivver’, even though they have the short i sound. The letter ‘r’ (single or double) makes all sorts of strange changes to a vowel before it, which we don’t have space to go into here.

Finally, we can find many words that don’t fit the pattern described above – elephant has a single consonant, but a short vowel sound

(we don’t pronounce it as ‘ee-lephant’).

How about in single-syllable words? We can be sure that a word ending in a single consonant and the letter e will have a long vowel sound (this ‘magic e’ doesn’t make a sound — it’s just there to tell us about the vowel in the middle of the word):