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Vowels, short, long, silent, exceptions for reading lessons

Vowels: A simple guide on sounds, long, short, silent, digraphs, trigraphs

Vowels in the English alphabet are a e i o u and sometimes y. Each of these letters represents two sounds, long and short, and have been the basis for learning to read for a long time despite the complexities of the written English language.

As reading methods evolve, phonics emphasised the relationship between letters and their sounds, empowering children to decode words by breaking them down into their component sounds. They learn that the sounds of vowels can be represented by one, two, three and even four letters. Examples:

  • ai in wait and said
  • air in hair
  • ea in meat and head
  • ear in bear
  • ei in receive and vein
  • eigh in weigh and height
  • ie in pie, ancient and movie
  • i-e in nice
  • oa in boat
  • ough in dough and through
  • oo in book, food and flood
  • ui in fruit and guide
  • ou in mouse and soup

A simple breakdown of vowel sounds

Here is a simple way to look at vowels. They have long and short sounds.

Long and short vowels

Long vowels sound like the sound of the letter – ate, eat, ice, oat and cute.

Short vowels sound different from the sound of the letter – ant, egg, ink, odd and up.

Yy is a vowel when it sounds like long ‘i’ as in cry, long ‘e’ as in many, or short ‘i’ as in myth. It is a consonant when it sounds like ‘yuh’ as in ‘yes’.

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Long vowels may be determined by the presence of silent ones within a syllable.

A syllable is a part of a word that has at least one vowel sound within it e.g. ape has one syllable, apple has two, and applesauce has three. There are 6 types of syllables:

6 types of syllables

  • open syllable ends in a vowel (she, motel, revise)
  • closed syllable ends with a consonant (fruit, welcome, compose)
  • vowel consonant e syllable (wake, compete, dislike)
  • r-controlled syllable (car, resort, portable)
  • vowel team syllable (laugh, goat, meaning)
  • consonant -le syllable (simple, table, cycle)

Some teachers use these syllable types to explain vowels. Teaching vowel teams is another effective method to help students achieve clarity.

Learn alphabet: Download 27 free worksheets to colour

Trace alphabet: Download 27 free worksheets

Two letter words: Download 5 free worksheets for tracing

At the same time, there are exceptions to common occurrences with vowels. Some of these fell under the list of sight words and high frequency words in English that students had to learn. Now, students learn them under vowel team groups:

Long vowels rule and exceptions

A long vowel is sounded when there is a silent vowel after it. e.g. aim, eel, lie, oat and juice.


Silent ‘e’ is at the end of the syllable

make, compete, bite, note, mute

‘y’ is at the end of the syllable

day, may, pay, stay, clay

Vowels are long with no silent vowels around

‘e’ – me, she, we, he, be, (pretty in some countries)

‘i’ – light, fight, high, thigh, plight

‘o’ – no, cold, bold, sold, throw

‘ei’ sounds like long ‘a’, long ‘e’, long ‘i’, short ‘e’

‘ei’ sounds like long ‘a’ – weight, neighbour, vein, freight, foreign

long ‘e’ – seize, either, neither

long ‘i’ – height, heist, feisty

short ‘e’ – weird, their, leisure

Vowels change to long ‘u’ and long ‘e’

‘e’ – chew, few, stew, threw

‘o’ – do, to, who, through

‘oo’ – proof, fool, racoon, moon, toot

‘i’ – fiesta, fiend, field, pizza

Short vowels rule and exceptions

A short vowel has no vowel after it in the same syllable. e.g. art, bet, sick, rot, gut


Vowels are short even with a ‘u’ is next to it

‘a’ – caught, taught, naught, haughty

‘o’ – tough, thought, bought, brought

Vowels are short even with a silent ‘e’ at the end of the syllable

‘o’ – done, gone

‘u’ – judge, fudge

Vowels change in sound

‘ie’ sounds like short ‘e’ – friend

‘e’ sounds like short ‘i’ – (pretty in some countries)  

These exceptions can be learned in order to master learning words in English. It makes understanding the spelling rules on blending letters and adding affixes much easier.

Today, students learn word lists on vowel teams and how single sounds are represented by two or more letters.

Word lists for 4 types of vowel teams

Digraphs with vowels

A digraph is a single sound that is represented by two letters.

ai – rain, stain, said, bait

ay – play, day, way, stay

aw – claw, paw, saw, law

ea – head, read, great, deal

ee – feed, seek, sheep, seen

ei – vein, leisure, receipt, deceive

ie – field, believe, thief, friend

oa – boat, loan, soak, road

oo – book, hoop, stood, food

ou – youth, tour, cousin, soul

ow – sow, tow, know, show

Consonants – hard, soft, digraphs, trigraphs, blends, silent sounds


A diphthong is a single vowel sound formed with the combination of two vowel sounds represented by two letters.

oi – boil, coin, avoid, noise

oy – boy, joy, toy, coy

ou – house, mouth, flour, sound

ow – cow, town, clown, now

Trigraphs with vowels

A trigraph is a single sound that is represented by three letters.

air – hair, fair, pair, stair

ear – hear, bear, pear, fear

eer – beer, deer, steer, peer

eau – beauty, bureau, plateau, beau

eir – their, weird, weirdo

eou – gorgeous, nauseous, advantageous, outrageous

iou – gracious, ambitious, cautious, precious

oar – boar, soar, coarse

oor – door, poor, floor, moor

our – four, pour, tour, your

Here are 17 trigraphs mixed with vowels and consonants.

Graphemes with 4 letters

A grapheme made up of 4 letters is termed a ‘quadgraph’ and ‘tetragraph’ by many teachers to describe a single sound. Here are a few.

augh – caught, naught, daughter

eigh – eight, weigh, height

ough – through, although, though

ngue – tongue, cangue, gangue

heir – heir, heirdom, heirloom

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See also:

Spelling rules for ch, tch, ck, k, oi, oy, ou, ow, ie, ei

Affixes – rules for adding prefixes and suffixes

Learn numbers: Download 32 free worksheets to colour

Trace numbers: Download 32 free worksheets for practice

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