When a vowel sounds like its name, we have traditionally called it a long vowel. When the vowel can be said with the mouth only partly opened, we have traditionally called it a short vowel.
Most Americans learned this way of naming vowel sounds, but today some experts recommend tossing out this old-fashioned naming system for several reasons.
- First, calling a vowel sound either long or short does not accurately describe the vowel sound since both kinds of sounds take about the same amount of time to say.
- Second, if the amount of time to pronounce these vowels is about the same, then what does long and short measure? Some experts say it is the length of the opening of the mouth. True, the mouth does open a bit more for long i’s and o’s, but not for the other long vowels.
- Third, there is a whole other group of vowel sounds which is neither long nor short (ou and oi, for example). Reading specialists call these diphthongs, but that term is usually not used with little children. These vowel sounds are usually called by the sound they make.
You can teach vowel sounds without ever using the terms long and short vowels, but eventually in school, the teacher, or a workbook, or a test probably will use those terms. If your child has not heard the terms before, she might be confused.
I recommend focusing on the sounds until the child knows them. Associate the sounds with letters only after you are sure your child can hear and pronounce the sounds correctly. Mention long and short vowels in passing, but don’t dwell on those terms. After all, it’s not what you call a vowel sound that is important in learning to read; it is being able to pronounce the vowel sound correctly.
When your child notices that the ten common vowel sounds are represented by only five letters, explain that hundreds of years ago, when people were first writing down our language, they ran out of letters to use, so they doubled up on some letters, using them to represent two different sounds. But quickly add that there are clues in the words which tell you which way to pronounce the sounds, so it’s usually not a problem.