Category Archives: > Reading Skills

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


+ Read and Write Side by Side With Your Child

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Rebecca Alber blogs at the edutopia site, and says students need to know that we also struggle with writing. 

She is writing for teachers.  But parents should model reading and writing as well.

So — as your children work on their own reading or writing, let them see you writing — so they can see that you, too, “get tongue-tied and run out of things to say.” 

Share with them the knowledge that you repeat yourself too.  You  forget words even though we’ve used them in the past.  You change your mind halfway through  a page and want to start over with a new topic.  

Your child needs to know that writing isn’t always easy for you — just as it isn’t easy for them.

And Albers says modeling reading is just as important.  It sends this message:

I like to read.  I don’t just tell you this and [monitor] how much you read.  I read side by side with you.  You see my facial expressions as I struggle to understand something difficult and you see when I feel emotion at a sad or funny part.  I am a reader, too.

This modeling for young people of your love — and struggles — as a reader and writer can help them understand that even for an adult who reads and writes all day, these task continue to be challenging.  

But you can show them that you find reward and delight in the process.  As they will, too. 

For Alber’s post, and much more at the site, visit

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

+ Abnormal Auditory Processing Underlies Dyslexia

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From Science Daily, a report indicating that people with dyslexia may be impacted by an abnormality in auditory processing.

Experts have long known that the inability to accurately decode and identify what they read is a result of speech processing problems.  But the basis of that disruption and how it interferes with reading comprehension had not been fully explored.

But now, new reasearch published in the December issue of the journal Neuron suggests that a specific abnormality in the processing of auditory signals accounts for the main symptoms of dyslexia.

Senior study authors are Dr. Anne-Lise Giraud and Frank Ramus of the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, France.

According to Giraud, everyone has been in agreement that for a majority of dyslexic children, the main cause is related to a deficit in the processing of speech sounds.  And also well established is that  there are three main symptoms of this deficit:

  • difficulty paying attention to individual speech sounds,
  • a limited ability to repeat a list of pseudo-words or numbers,
  • and a slow performance when asked to name a series of pictures, colors, or numbers as quickly as possible. 

However, the underlying basis of these symptoms had not been elucidated.

Giraud and her colleagues examined whether an abnormality in the early steps of auditory processing in the brain, called “sampling,” is linked with dyslexia.  They focused on the idea that an anomaly in the initial processing of phonemes — the smallest units of sounds that can be used to make a word — might have a direct impact on the processing of speech.

What they found is that typical brain processing of auditory rhythms associated with phonemes was disrupted in the left auditory cortex of dyslexics.  This deficit correlated with measures of speech sound processing.

Further, they found that dyslexics exhibited an enhanced response to high-frequency rhythms that indirectly interfered with verbal memory.

It is possible that this “oversampling” might result in a distortion of the representation of speech sounds.

Girard says

Our results suggest that the left auditory cortex of dyslexic people may be less responsive to modulation at very specific frequencies, which is potentially detrimental to their verbal short-term memory abilities.  Taken together, our data suggest that the auditory cortex of dyslexic individuals is less fine-tuned to the specific needs of speech processing.

Visit the Science Daily article, which is aggregated and has no byline, to locate citations:

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

+ Reading Checklist

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The most recent issue of  Perspectives on Language and Literacy  is themed “Beyond Reading Recovery: What Works Best?”

The theme editor is Tom Nicholson, Professor in the School of Education at Massey University, Aukland, New Zealand.

In his summary introduction to the issue, he offers a checklist given to students, which I think could be useful as you gather information about a young reader. 

Questions About Reading

  • How good a reader do you feel yourself to be?
  • How do you feel when it is your turn to read out loud in school?
  • How do you feel when you come to a new word while reading?
  • How do you feel when you have to spell a new word that you don’t know how to spell?
  • How do you feel about getting a book for a present?
  • How do you feel about going to school?
  • How do you think you’ll feel about reading when you go to high school?
  • Would you rather clean your room or read?
  • How often do you read at home by yourself?
  • How long do you read for, after school is out and before you go to bed?
  • How many books do you have at home (just your own)?
  • When do you do most of your reading at home?
  • Can you remember the name of a book you read recently?
  • Do you like to read?

 from Tom Nicholson’s article in “Perspectives on Language and Literacy” Fall 2011.  Perspectives is a quarterly publication of the International Dyslexia Association:  

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

+ Computerized Reading Games: Report

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From Kathie Nunley’s Educator’s Newsletter:

Four and five-year olds can benefit from computerized reading games, but only when given individualized feedback and correction. A Dutch study had a large group of low SES children use a computerized tutoring program to play games designed to improve literacy skills.

Half the children received individualized feedback including oral corrections from the computer.

Those children’s code-related literacy skills increased as a result. The children who played the games without the individualized feedback did not have skill improvement. It’s also interesting to note that children with inhibitory control problems scored disproportionately low when working in a computer environment without personalized feedback.

Kegel, C. & Bus, A. (2011). “Online tutoring as a pivotal quality of web-based early literacy programs.” Journal of Educational Psychology, preview, n.p.s.

Find Dr. Nunley’s Newsletter at   You can subscribe.

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

+ From Scroll to Codex to Screen

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From the New York Times, an article by Lev Grossman, who writes that something “very important and very weird” is happening to the book right now.

It’s shedding its papery corpus and transmigrating into a bodiless digital form, right before our eyes.  we’re witnessing the bibliographical equivalent of the rapture.  If anything, we may be lowballing the weirdness of it all.

 However a change of this magnitude took place around  1450, when movable type was invented.  And — a truer equivalency to what’s happening today — beginning in the first century AD, western readers gave up the scroll in favor of the codex — the bound book as we know it today.

To the Carthaginians, the Greeks, the Romans, the book format of choice was the scroll.  It was the state of the art technology for dissemination of information.

To read a scroll you gradually unrolled it, exposing a bit at a time.  Afterward (remember VHS?) you had to re-roll it back to start the “right way” for the next reader.

Writes Grossman

English is still littered with words left over from the scroll age.  The first page of a scroll, which listed information about where it was made, was called the “protocol.”  The reason books are sometimes called volumes is that the root of “volume” is volvere, to roll: to read a scroll, you revolved it.

This prestige format was used for important works only: sacred texts, legal documents, history, literature.

To do lists or algebra, the daily method for clerks and students was to scribble on wax-covered wooden “tablets” with a stylus.  The stylus had a pointy end — for writing — and also a flat end, to scrape and push the wax flat again after use.

Eventually someone thought of stringing a few tablets together into a bundle, and then replacing the tablets with papyrus.  Thus, perhaps, was born the “codex.” 

But nobody felt it was the best way to do things until a bunch of radicals adopted it and chose it for their own purpose.  They used the codex as a way of distributing the Bible.

The codex helped differentiate the Christians from the Jews, who kept (and still keep) their sacred text in scroll form.  But in addition, some alert Christians must have recognized that the codex was a powerful form in information technology — compact, highly portable and easily concealable.  (Christians were, after all, criminals and living “underground” in many places.)

The codex was cheap since you could write on both sides of the page.  And it held more words than a scroll (the Bible was a long book).

It also provided a unique reading experience because, for the first time, you could jump to any point in a text instantly, non-linearly.   You could flip back and forth between two pages to study them both at once. 

Cross-checking, comparing and bookmarking were easy.  A bored reader could skim, or jump back to read the “good parts.”

It was the paper equivalent of random-access-memory, and it must have been almost supernaturally empowering.  With a scroll you could only trudge through texts the long way, linearly.

Right now, says Grossman, we’re road-testing the new digital format, and we’re  doing it at an astounding rate.  But unlike the last time, he feels, it’s not a clear-cut case of an inferior technology being replaced by a superior technology. 

What’s happening today is more complex; it’s more about trade-off.

On the one hand, the  e-book is far more compact and portable than the codex, almost absurdly.  E-books are also searchable, and they’re green, or greenish anyway (if you want to give yourself nightmares, look up the ecological cost of building a single Kindle).  On the other hand the codex requires no batteries, and no electronic display has yet matched the elegance, clarity and cool matte comfort of a printed page.

While digital technology is associated with nonlinearity, and the forking paths through underbrush from link to link, Grossman asserts that e-books and nonlinearity are not truly compatible.

On a digital reader, try to jump from place to place in a long document like a novel.  It’s “like trying to play the piano with numb fingers.”  Readers are only able to creep through  page by page, leap wildly from point to point or search-term to search- term.

It’s no wonder that e-books have resurrected classical-era terminology like “scroll” and “tablet.”

On the other hand, according to Grossman

The codex is built for nonlinear reading — not the way a Web surfer  does it, aimlessly questing from document to document, but the way a deep reader does it, navigating the network of internal connections that exists within a single rich document like a novel.

Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized.  The contemporary novel’s dense, layered language took root and grew in the codex, and it demands the kind of navigation that only the codex provides. 

Imagine trying to negotiate the nested, echoing labyrinth of David Mitchell”s “Cloud Atlas” if it were transcribed onto a scroll.  It couldn’t be done.

Read Grossman’s article at

Lev Grossman is the author of the novels “The Magicians” and “The Magician King.”  He is also the book critic at Time magazine.

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

+ Central Ohio: Upper Arlington Dyslexia Talk

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A Columbus group called UA-KID (Upper Arlington – Kids Identified with Dyslexia) announces its September Speaker Series.
On Thursday September 15th, Dr. Stephen Guy will address “Why They Don’t Show What They Know: Understanding and Helping the Student with Executive/Regulatory difficulties.”
  • Thursday, September 15
  • 7:00 pm
  • Upper Arlington Main Library – Friend’s Theater.

posted by Debbie Segor on Cobida/Facebook

tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-5021  or email