American English features 14-17 vowel sounds, the precise number of which depends on a speaker’s national, regional and cultural background. Meanwhile, our alphabet has only five vowel letters to represent those 15 sounds (a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y as in the word sky). The resulting mismatch between spelling and pronunciation presents a real challenge for anyone learning English.
Multitasking in the words they help represent, vowel letters end up conveying multiple sounds: come and home look the same but sound different at the vowel level, as do even and ever, and though and thought. Too often, learners are told that ‘spelling is crazy’ in English; it’s not surprising that many learners take this to heart and conclude that spelling is unlearnable.
15 Sounds vs. 5 Letters: What’s a learner to do about pronunciation?!
In one simple visual reference, the Color Vowel® Chart addresses both the problem of pronunciation and the problem of spelling. Each of those 15 English vowel sounds is identified by a color name that uses the vowel sound. For example, GREEN features the /iy/ vowel sound and is represented by the phrase green tea.
With the Color Vowel Chart in place, we can say that even is GREEN TEA, while ever is RED DRESS. In saying this, we have an opportunity to investigate the various spellings of GREEN and RED words and discover the variety of spelling patterns can represent each sound.
What else does the Chart do?
The shape of the Color Vowel Chart mirrors the vocal tract and visually highlights the boundary between vowel and consonant sounds in American English. It also features useful symbols that facilitate teaching tricky vowel sounds, vowel-to-vowel linking and R-controlled vowels.
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