My long vowel activities were a labor of love for my students.
When I first taught a “true beginner” class, it was full of Saudi students. This was a class not shy about speaking, having fun, or making mistakes. Some of them were also pretty vocal about not wanting to continue making the same mistakes again and again. They had a lot of difficulties with vowel pronunciation and wanted to start out “right”. They wanted to increase their vocabulary but also pronounce the words correctly. When they read, they wanted to say the words correctly, whether they were reading aloud or to themselves.
Most of all, they wanted to be understood when they got up the nerve to try their English outside the classroom.
However, no matter what texts were assigned, pronunciation was only briefly touched on, which frustrated my students as well as me. So, I began to look for supplemental material.
There is a LOT out there, but those who teach adults know that it is almost always geared towards children with childish words, childish pictures, and childish activities. My students did not want to cut, match, and glue the words “can” and “cane” to their corresponding pictures. They wanted to practice HEARING and CREATING the sounds.
Because vowel sounds were especially tricky for my Arabic speakers, I decided to start there. Long vowel spelling patterns and sounds became the focus because they were easier than short vowels for the students, and we all wanted to start out with success. I spent a good part of my weekend trying to come up with some fun long vowel activities.
Long Vowel Activities: a linguistic investigation
To start, I brainstormed a list of words that had long vowel sounds. I tried to mainly use words with one syllable, but I threw others in there as well to keep things challenging because some of my students were a bit more advanced than others. Then I divided those words into groups based on the spelling pattern that made the long a. -a_e, -ai-, -eigh-, -ay After adding more words to some of the groups to even them out, I was ready! Or, so I thought.
The first lesson didn’t go well, but my students were willing guinea pigs and delighted in trying out everything I came up with. They also loved telling me whenever one of my ideas totally sucked, and their levels of diplomacy certainly varied! (All in good fun, though!)
Eventually, this is what I ended up with.
Step 1: What do they already know about the long vowel sound’s spelling pattern?
First, what do they already know? You don’t want to spend time teaching them something they’ve already mastered, so use this time to see where they are and give them the opportunity to teach each other. I liked having my students discuss the worksheet together in pairs.
This page is simple–it’s a list of words with the long a sound, and each word has its letters spaced far apart. Students look at the word, read it aloud if they can, and guess which letter(s) make the long a sound. At this point, I have them make any marks (circling, underlining, etc.) in pencil so that they can easily change their answers. (This was back before I had a digital version.)
Step 2: Listen to find the spelling pattern.
Next, I read each word to them one at a time. This functioned as a listening exercise in which they were both listening for the long vowel sound and trying to identify the letters that created that sound. I meant for this to be like a linguistic investigation so that students could discover for themselves the spelling patterns. I usually repeat the words for the first half, and then only say each word once for the remaining half. My students quickly learned to listen only in order to focus on the correct sound.
Step 3: The magic happens.
Once they had had the chance to mark the long vowel sound in each word, they rejoined their partner to work together comparing answers and looking for patterns. After a few minutes, I’d ask students to share their findings with the group. Instead of outright telling them of any errors, I led them into discovering any that they had missed.
It was like magic! Through their own observation and discussion with classmates, they were learning to identify common spelling patterns! With each group of students, the magic had to happen all over again, from the beginning. After all, it’s normal for them to struggle a lot with this in the beginning. However, by the end, they learned a valuable skill that they could apply in a variety of contexts.
To show them what they had learned, I wrote “shave, wait, eight, pray” on the board and asked them to explain to their partner which letters make the long a sound in each word. With my constant circling around the room, I knew they knew it, but I wanted them to realize they did.
I loved this linguistic investigation and loved watching light bulbs brighten the room, but I knew it wasn’t enough.
Using Minimal Pairs in Long Vowel Activities
Once students were familiar with the spelling patterns, I decided to start helping them differentiate between the sounds of the given long vowel and another vowel sound, whether short or long. I brainstormed a list of minimal pairs and wrote the pairs on the board. Almost immediately, several of my students voiced concern that they weren’t able to focus well when they also had to take the time to write the words, so I soon had a handout. This turned out to be a GREAT resource for me, and I referred to it constantly while making other long vowel activities.
I love using minimal pairs to help them identify the sound they hear (and some will need to learn to hear it if it doesn’t exist in their native language) and to create the sounds themselves. Because each word otherwise sounds the same, it really highlights whatever sound we are focusing on. I used my snazzy handout as a listening and pronunciation exercise. We did lots of variations of listening & repeat.
To be honest, at this point, I thought I was done. Thankfully, my students gently (and some not so gently) prodded me to create more.
Wait, what? Same or Different in Long Vowel Activities
Learning the spelling patterns turned out to be the easy part BY FAR. Many of my students were still struggling to hear the difference. Quite often I would have someone vehemently insisting that I was saying the same word twice when we went over the minimal pairs handout.
So, I took a bunch of the minimal pairs from my handout, randomized them, and then edited them so that for some, it would be the same word twice. After creating a rudimentary handout, we were set for a round of SAME or DIFFERENT?, the worksheet version. (Remember, BOOM CARDS didn’t exist back then.)
Once I had my handout ready, I simply read each pair of words and allowed time for my students to select their answers. For my true beginner levels, I’d enunciate very slowly and clearly. For the higher-level classes who’d heard about my long vowel activities and wanted in on it, I read normally or faster than normal.
Mischievous smiles and twinkling eyes quickly clued me in on a shortcut some were using, and I started holding the handout in front of my mouth while speaking. This ensured that students were focused on the sounds rather than the movements of my mouth.
Again, they loved it, and if you have ever taught Saudi students, you KNOW how lavish they can be with their praise. I was soon suckered into spending more of my free time coming up with more long vowel activities. This time, I wanted THEM to do more of the work. Hey, it was allergy season, and I kept losing my voice.
Making Games for Long Vowel Activities
For once, creating an activity didn’t take me a lot of time. I simply put all the long vowel cards into a table, printed them, and cut out the cards. Super basic.
Version 1: In my smaller classes, students worked in pairs, but larger classes had some groups of three. I kept these groups small to ensure that each student would have more chances to read a card. They took turns drawing a card, showing it to the group, and then reading it aloud. If the partner/group okayed the pronunciation, the student kept the card. If not, the card returns to the deck/pile of cards.
And yes, at this point I sometimes was pressed into service as the judge, but I mainly floated around, observing, guiding, and taking notes.
But, that got boring, and I had to develop some alternatives.
Version 2: With the next version, students worked in pairs to quiz each other by taking turns to rapidly show each card in turn. The object was to correctly say each word in turn as fast as possible. My more competitive students opted to time each other’s efforts, and their creativity really shone with the titles they bestowed upon themselves and others as the speed winners.
Version 3: My true beginners loved those two card game versions almost as much as the previous long vowel activities, but remember my higher-level students who had wanted in on the game? Thanks to a timely shower thought, I realized that I could repurpose another card game’s rules. Later that day, my students were working in small groups/pairs to describe the meaning of the word on their card for their partners or others in the group to guess.
Well, there you have it. That’s pretty much the entirety of my Long Vowel Spelling Patterns and Pronunciation resource that I now sell on TpT.
I wish that the students who served as guinea pigs, cheerleaders, and show-biz moms could see the long vowel BOOM CARDS version of this I made not long ago. I can only imagine the poetically outlandish praise that would get heaped on me for the BOOM CARDS.
Gosh, I miss those students!
Want to read more about pronunciation or teaching beginners?
- Create Listening Labyrinths Using Minimal Pairs: a Step by Step Guide
- 4 Surefire Strategies for Refining R/L Pronunciation
- The 5 Best TH-Pronunciation Activities for Adult ESL
- 10 Practical Ways to Teach the Alphabet to Adult ESL Students
Want to buy the end result of everything I talked about?
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