Category Archives: > English Language Learning (ELL)

8 Things You Might Not Know About Vowels

by Arika Okrent

A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y is not all you need to know about vowels. There’s more to these workhorse members of our linguistics inventory than you might think.



A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y are the letters we define as vowels, but vowels can also be defined as speech sounds. While we have six letters we define as vowels, there are, in English, many more vowel sounds than that. For example consider the word pairs cat and car, or cook and kook. The vowel sounds are different from each other in each pair, but they are represented by the same letters. Depending on the dialect, and including diphthongs, which are combinations of two vowel sounds, English has from nine to 16 vowel sounds.


The most common vowel sound in English doesn’t even have its own letter in the alphabet. It does have a symbol, though, and it looks like this: ǝ. It’s the “uh” sound in an unstressed syllable and it shows up everywhere, from th[ǝ], to p[ǝ]tato, to antic[ǝ]p[ǝ]tory. You can discover nine fun facts about it here.


In addition to pure vowel sounds, there are diphthongs, where the sound moves from one target to another. American English is full of them. The vowel in the American pronunciation of no is a diphthong that moves from o to u (if you say it in slow motion, your lips move from a pure o position to a pure u position). The vowel in the Spanish pronunciation is not a diphthong. It stays at o, and that what makes it sound different from the English version.


The u sound (pronounced “oo”) is a vowel. It allows an unrestricted airflow through the vocal apparatus. Consonants, in contrast, are created with a blockage of air flow, or point of constriction. A u sound can sometimes serve as that point of constriction, and it that case the u is considered a w. In the word blue, the u is the most open part of the syllable, and a vowel. In want it is the constriction before the main vowel, and thus a consonant. Similarly, an i (or “ee”) can also be a y, which helps explain why is Y a sometimes vowel.


Most languages have at least i, a, and u, or something close to them, though it may be the case that the extinct language Ubykh had only two vowels. It is hard to say what the highest number of vowels for a language is because there are features like vowel length, nasalization, tone, and voicing quality (creaky, breathy) that may or may not be considered marks of categorical difference from other sounds, but in general, 15 seems to be a pretty high number of distinct single vowels for a language. The International Phonetic Alphabet has symbols for 34 different vowels. You can listen to the different sounds they represent here.


In English, we can add an ending like –ness or –y onto any word and the form of the ending doesn’t change. I can say “the property of vowelness” or “his speech is very diphthongy.” In languages like Hungarian, the vowels of the ending must harmonize with the vowels in the word it attaches to. For example, the multiplicative ending, for forming words like twice, thrice, etc. is –szor when it attaches to a word with a back vowel (hatszor, “six times”), -szer when it attaches to a word with a front vowel (egyszer, “once”) and –ször when it attaches to a word with a front rounded vowel (ötször, “five times”). Other languages with vowel harmony are Turkish and Finnish.


Many words we have today were pronounced very differently before the 14th century. Boot sounded more like boat, house sounded like hoos, and five sounded like feev. English underwent a major change in the 14th and 15th centuries. Words with long vowels shifted into new pronunciations. The changes happened in stages, over a few hundred years, but when they were complete, the language sounded very different, and spelling was a bit of a mess, since many spellings had been established during early phases of pronunciation. The change may have been initiated by the volume of French words that entered English shortly before the shift, or by the movement of populations with different dialects during the Black Plague.


In 1969, George Perec, a member of the French experimental literature group known as Oulipo published La Disparition, a 300-page novel written only with words that did not contain the letter e. It was published in English as A Void, also without using the letter e. The Spanish translation, El Secuestro, used no a. Works created with this kind of restriction are called lipograms, explained here in an e-less lipogram.


Orton-Gillingham Tutoring in Columbus OH: Adrienne Edwards 614-579-6021, or email

+ Chinese Poets to Read in Six Cities

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A reading tour of young Chinese poets celebrates “Push Open the Window: Contemporary Poetry from China” (Copper Canyon Press. The book is a bilingual anthology that features over one hundred poems by some of China’s finest poets born after 1945.

The poets are Xi Chuan, Zhou Zan, Li-Young Lee, Maurice Kilwein Guevara, Marilyn Chin.   Forrest Gander and Michael Wiegers will host at two events.  Not all poets will be at every venue.

  • September 29, Seattle WA.  Seattle Asian Art Museum,   7:00 p.m.
  • October 1, Port Townsend WA.  Wheeler Theater, Fort Worden, 7:00 p.m.
  • October 4, Chicago IL.  Poetry Foundation, 7:00. Reading with Li-Young Lee and Maurice Kilwein Guevara.
  • October 6, Iowa City IA.  Prairie Lights, 15 Dubuque St. 7:00 p.m.
  • October 10, New York NY.  Unterberg Poetry Center, 92nd St Y.  8:15 p.m. Reading with Marilyn Chin and Li-Young Lee; hosted by Forrest Gander.
  • October 12, Washington DC.  Library of Congress, 8:15 p.m.  Reading followed by discussion with Michael Wiegers.

Xi Chuan has published five collections of poetry and serves as editor of Dangdai Gouji Shitan (Contemporary Poetry International).

Zhou Zan edits Wings, a journal of contemporary Chinese poetry written by women.

Visit The preeminent non-profit independent publisher of poetry in the US, Copper Canyon Press connects the works of emerging, established, and world-renowned poets with diverse and expanding audiences.

tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email

+ “English Isn’t Crazy!” by Diana Hanbury King

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I discovered, as well,  in the AOGPE “Academy News” that Diana Hanbury King’s wonderful book “English Isn’t Crazy! The Elements of Our Language and How to Teach Them” is available now.

King’s book is required reading for AOGPE Associate Level trainees.

I’ve had my copy for several years, and was told at some point that the book was not available. 

But when AOGPE Fellow Diana Hanbury King  spoke at Regis College in Weston Massachusetts, we are told that she autographed copies of her book.   So I went online, and discovered it is available at Pro Ed Publishers (visit ). 

Chapters in this slim paperback  cover:

  • Origins (of our English language)
  • The Celts
  • The Romans
  • The Anglo-Saxons
  • The Danes
  • Old English: The Language
  • The Normans
  • Middle English
  • The Classical Revival
  • Toward Modern English
  • American English
  • The Roots of Our Language

There are 29 pages if appendices:

  • Whence These Words
  • Interesting Etymologies
  • How to Teach Latin Elements
  • How to Teach Greek Elements
  • Working With Germanic Elements
  • An Approach to French Elements
  • Earth, Fire and Water

There is, as well, a bibliography.

Diana Hanbury King says she hopes her book will inspire some of us to pick up a bilingual edition of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” or Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf.”  

If we’d like to read further she suggests taking a look at Bill Bryson’s “eminently readable” “Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.”

If we can handle something more scholarly, she offers Thomas Pyles and John Algeo’s “The Origin and Development of the English Language” ” (4th ed.)

My copy of King’s “English Isn’t Crazy! ” has been read and re-read — not only by me, but also by several of my students.  Check it out.

Diana Hanbury King  has worked with dyslexic students since 1950, when she became involved with Anna Gillingham’s work.  In 1955 she established the oldest summer program of its kind for dyslexic students. In 1969, she founded the Kildonan School in Pennsylvania (now located in Amenia, New York).

King is also the author of  “Cursive Writing Skills” (2nd ed.), “Keyboarding Skills” (2nd ed.), and “Writing Skills”  (2nd ed), available from Educators Publishing Service at .

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email

+ Latin “Connective i” Construct: Decoding Strategies

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From the Winter 2011 issue of “Academy News,” the newsletter of the Orton Academy (AOGPE), Theresa Collins speaks to teachers of more advanced and ELL learners. 

Collins tells us that

Knowledge of the Latin connective i construct is the key to reading sophisticated Latin-based words. 

 More explicitly:

  •  Pronunciation: the connective  i is pronounced as long /e/ before a vowel suffix (“imperious”).
  • Pronounce connective i as  /y/ after l or n  (“million,” “genious”).
  • Pronounce connective  i  as short /i/ before a consonant (“lexical” or “adventitious”).
  • Teach that the i connective also helps a reader to identify the accented syllable (for example, always the syllable before the connective i.)
  • Spelling tip:  if you can identify a Latin connective, you’re alerted that this is a Latin word.  So you have clues to spelling the rest of the word.  (e.g. if the word you’re spelling is “victorious,” you know that you shouldn’t  choose an Anglo-Saxon k or ck as you spell it.)
  • More spelling: when you hear /y/ before a suffix, spell it with i.  When you hear long /e/ before a suffix, spell it with i .
  • When the Latin connective i comes after the letters t, c, s, or x, the combination is pronounced /sh/ or /zh/ (as in “nutritious,” “official,” “confusion” and “anxious”).
  • The ti, ci, si, and xi combinations are always used to spell /sh/ in Latin words.
  • Syllable stress:  always place the stress in these words on the syllable directly before /sh/.  For example: “delicious,” “obnoxious.”
  • A, O, U: these vowels  are always long when they precede /sh/ or /zh/.  Says Collins: these vowels “hold more sound,” and you can hear them when you say (for example) “palatial,” “ferocious,” “crucial.”
  • E:  this vowel  is “only half full” and can therefore be pronounced long OR short before the sound /sh/ or /zh/.  Tell students to try saying both to determine the correct choice: “precious,’ “completion.” 
  • I: this vowel is always short before the /sh/ sound in (for example) “judicious,” “malicious.”  Writes Collins, you can tell your students it is “little and wimpy and cannot hold any long vowel sound!”

Collins says if  you and your students  are armed with these logical generalizations, you should be ready to decode any Latin-based word.

sole source: Article in the Winter 2011 AOGPE “Academy News,” by Theresa Collins, F/AOGPE, Director of language Training, The Kildonan School.

The purpose of AOGPE (the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators) is to establish and maintain the highest professional standards for practice of the Orton-Gillingham Approach; to certify practitioners and accredit O-G training programs; and to be active in professional development and public awareness.

Join to access AOGPE’s resources, to support their work, and to recieve this quarterly newsletter. 


NOTE: Errors are mine! I have supplied some of the above word usage examples where Collins gave none.   I may be incorrect in some of these choices. Please let me know where, why and how to improve those examples!

tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email

+ Teaching Phonics: Some Terminology

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At a COBIDA conference this weekend, I found Isabel L. Beck’sMaking Sense of Phonics: The Hows and Whys.”

The introductory chapter provides an explanation of some terms.

  • Decoding:  using the letters on a page to retrieve the sounds associated with those letters
  • Word recognition, sight word recognition:  decoding by applying  letter-sound knowledge immediately, without any apparent  attention.  Also called automaticity.
  • Word attack:  decoding by the conscious and deliberate application of letter-sound knowledge to produce a plausible pronunciation of a word.  Self-aware “figuring-out” of a word.
  • Encoding:  sometimes called spelling, encoding is the opposite of decoding.  It involves the application of letter-sound relationships to identify which letters will be needed to create a specific written word.
  • Alphabetic principle:  the ground rule that written words are composed of letters, and those letters correspond to segments of written words.  In this alphabetic language, a letter (grapheme) is associated with a unit of speech (phoneme). 
  • Grapheme:  a letter associated with a unit of speech; the smallest written representation of speech sounds.  For example, in the word “mop” (the m , the o  and the p ).  Or the three representations in the word “chain” (ch and ai  and n.)
  • Phoneme:  A unit of speech; the smallest speech sound into which a spoken word can be divided.  For example, the sound /m/in the word “mop.”
  • Great Debate:  a term coined by Jeanne Chall in 1967 to describe the argument in the reading world about whether to teach beginning readers with a code-oriented approach (these days associated with phonics) or a meaning-oriented (often referred to as “whole language”)  approach .Also called “the reading wars.”
  • Explicit, systematic phonics:  the instructional strategy by which the relationship between letters and sounds are directly  (explicitly) taught in a pre-established (systematic) sequence.  In most reading programs (but not all) the consonants and short vowels are presented before long vowels, vowel teams and r-controlled vowels.
  • Orthography:  a language’s writing (spelling) system.
  • Orthographic knowledge:  what an individual knows about the writing system of a language.
  • Invented spelling:  children’s initial attempts to represent oral language, such as CU for “see you” or bak for “back.”
  • Consonants:  the English letters whose sounds are produced in the mouth and throat by blocking or controlling the air in some way; they may be voiced or unvoiced.   
  • Consonant blend (or clusters):  two or three contiguous consonant letters in which each letter maintains its sound (the b and r in “brush”).
  • Consonant digraph:  contiguous consonants in which the letters do not maintain their sounds  ( sh in “ship”) but produce a unique sound.
  • Vowel:  in English, the vowels are a ;  e ;  i ;  o ;  u ;  and sometimes y  (as in “my).  They are letters whose sounds are always unblocked and voiced.
  • Short vowel:  the sound of a vowel in a “closed” (CVC)syllable: the sound of o  in the word “hot,” for example.
  • Long vowel:  the sound of a vowel when it “says its name.”  For example, the sound of o in the word “no” or “note.”
  • Vowel digraphs or “teams”:  two contiguous vowels in which they stand for a long vowel sound (ai  in “sail,” for example) or a sliding vowel sound ( ou  as in “out,” for example).  The spelling for a “sliding” vowel sound is sometimes referred to as a …
  • Diphthong:  the vowel digraph representing a sliding sound (the ou  in “out,” or the  oi   in “join”). In a sliding vowel sound, the speech sound begins with one vowel sound and moves to another.
  • R-controlled vowel:  a vowel followed by r  no longer has its short sound.  Notice that the sound of  a  in “car” is not the sound of   a  in “cat.”
  • Grapheme-phoneme (letter-sound) correspondences:  expression used to name the correspondence between a grapheme and a phoneme.  How letters map onto the sounds of a word, and vice versa.
  • Spelling-sound relationships:  the concept that a reader knows to use various sub-word units which are often beyond the grapheme-phoneme relationship, such as ous   or    tion    in “nervous” or “action.”
  • Phonological awareness:  an umbrella term for a person’s ability to understand spoken words, or recognize rhymes, or to identify that “at” and “it” are different or to notice different words in a spoken list (“cat,” “mat,” “fat” for example).
  • Phonemic awareness:  an understanding of the individual phonemes in a word (for example that “ran” and “rain” both have three sounds.


  • The Alphabetic Principle and Phonics
  • Letter-Sound Instruction
  • Blending
  • Word Building
  • Multisyllabic Words
  • Epilogue  


  • CVC Pattern
  • Long Vowels of the CVCe Pattern
  • Long Vowel Digraph Patterns 
  • rControlled Digraph Patterns 
  • Word and Syllable Matrices for Syllasearch
  • The Word Pocket

There are also References, and an Index.

The definitions above are from the “Introduction” chapter of Isabel L. Beck’s book, “Making Sense of Phonics: The Hows and Whys,” published by Guilford Press (   134 pages. ISBN 1-59385-257-6 (paper).

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email

+ Six-Step Vocabulary Work

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I found Rebecca Alber’s blog at  She reminds us of Robert Marzano’s six-step method for direct teaching of vocabulary.   Here is a stripped-down version.


Step one: you explain the new word, beyond reciting definition

Step two: child restates/explains the word in his or her own words

Step three: child creates his or her own picture of the word

Step four: child engages in an activity (compares / classifies / makes  an analogy or metaphor)

Step five: child discusses/uses the word (perhaps writing)

Step six: child plays a game that reviews new words

Remember: vocabulary has been shown to be  the best single indicator of intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success at school.

 source: Rebecca Alber’s blog at; “Teaching Basic and Advanced Vocabulary” by Robert Marzano; “Vocabulary Games for the Classroom” by Lindsay Carlton and Robert Marzano

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021 or email  

+ Learning Languages on the Web

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An NY Times article by Eric A Taub explores some products available for learning language on the Web.

The growth of broadband connectivity and social networks has resulted in a range of Internet-based language learning products. 

Rosetta-Stone’s yellow boxes may be the most recognizable, but there are many more to choose from.

Taub categorizes them as “Pay and Learn,” “Free Now, Pay Later,”  and “Free Language Learning.”   In addition, he discovered apps for smartphones.

Here they are.

RosettaStone Totale

This seems to be the best known language program.  It offers a $1000 product that includes RosettaCourse, a traditional lesson-based module; RosettaStudio, a place where a learner can talk with a native speaker via video chat; and RosettaWorld, which is an online community where one can play language-related games.

Says the company’s CEO Tom Adams, “We offer modern-day pen pals with voice-over IP.”

The product uses such things as colorful flashcards to help students learn words and then connect those words to concepts and sentences. 

According to Adams, the idea is for the user to let go of the adult “technical questions and just get into a comfort zone, learning new sounds and trying to make sense of them.” 


TellMeMore believes it has an advantage over RosettaStone.  Its software not only teaches words and phrases, but incudes a speech recognition component that analyses pronunciation, presents a graph of speech, and then suggests how to perfect it.

Other videos show students how to shape their mouths to create particular sounds that might be difficult for a native English speaker (for example, the rolling r of Spanish).

TellMeMore has 10 levels of content, a 1,000 word glossary, videos of native speakers and more than 40 practice activities.  According to Adams,  their methods keep people interested. 

 TellMeMore’s charge of $390 will give you a year’s access to its resources for six languages.  If you need a quick refresher you can buy a $10 daily pass.  Weekly, monthly and half-year passes are also available.

Currently it’s only available on CD-ROM, but online versions for both Mac and Windows are coming later this year.  See below about coming smartphone apps.


This is a two-year-old Web start-up, which offers free basic lessons in 30 languages. 

Users can upgrade to advanced courses with additional features on a monthly or six-month basis.

Students can submit up to eight voice recordings to a native-speaking tutor for $20 a month.  The tutor will review them and make recommendations withing 24 hours.  Alternatively, pay $70 for a six month commitment and submit two examples per lesson.

Whether you are using the free or the pay model, you can join social networking groups.  Using VoIP, you will speak live to native-speaking people around the world who are interested in learning to speak English.

However, writes Taub

As with all social networking sites, this feature is open to misuse.  Within hours of signing up for Livemocha, I received a note from a young woman, ostensibly from Poland, wanting to meet me.

Livemocha says it has the world’s largest community of people learning languages; they claim 5 million registered users in 200 countries.


Babbel is financed in part by the European Union, and offers paid instruction (a trial lesson is free) in English, French, German, Italian or Spanish for $12 a month; if you commit to six months, it’s $6.62 a month.

Users are given extended grammar and vocabulary, but in addition they can communicate with others in their desired language through private or public chats; it’s also possible to arrange for voice contact.

Free Language Learning

Taub notes that a variety of free language learning is available. 

The British Broadcasting Service at offers several levels of instruction in 36 languages.  Features include audio and video playback and translation.

The German television network, Deutsche Welle, will help you with your German ( 

You might try learning Japanese at   Or

Or Smartphone Apps

Many of these exist to help you get along in a foreign language.  For example: simple providers of useful phrases.  

  • The Lonely Planet Phrasebooks ($10 for each of 18 languages);
  • The Oxford Translator Travel Pro ($10 for each of five languages); and
  • World Nomads (which is free and offers 23 languages. 
  • Ultralingua Translation Dictionary offers simultaneous translation of English and six languages for $20 a language.

According to Taub, both RosettaStone and TellMeMore are developing smartphone apps as supplements to their programs. 

Livemocha expects to have an app later this year for both Android and iPhone.  The plan is to integrate text with a native speaker pronouncing the language, as well as to provide an option for voice recording and live video feeds.

sole source: Eric A Taub’s article in the NY Times on 1/28/10.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards 614-579-6021   or email