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How to Teach Vowel Sounds in Speech Therapy

For many children, vowels are the first and simplest sounds to acquire. However, difficulty producing correct and consistent vowel sounds is usually a sign of a motor speech disorder known as apraxia of speech. Some children with other types of speech sound disorders may also produce errored vowel sounds.

Are you working with a child exhibiting these types of delays? Wondering how best to support them?

You can find those resources here on this guide on how to teach vowel sounds in Speech Therapy.

1. Determine What Vowel Sounds Can the Child Produce

The first step to addressing vowel sounds in speech therapy includes finding out the specific vowels that present itself as a challenge for the child. It’s a common issue for children to substitute one vowel sound for another. This leads to mispronunciations like saying “bed” instead of “bad.” Another common challenge is the distortion of diphthongs (turning them into monophthongs).

By accurately classifying the challenges the child encounters, speech therapists can come up with a focused and effective starting point for the therapy. Doing the process in this manner will ensure that the aid the child will receive is tailored to address the specific areas of difficulty in vowel articulation.

Children should receive a thorough assessment including a language sample and a standardized articulation evaluation such as the Goldman-Fristoe Test of ArticulationTM 3 (GFTA-3).

2. Start with Basic Vowel Sounds (uh, ah, ee, oo, oh)

Now that you have a defined inventory of which vowel sounds the child can and cannot produce (or which they are inconsistent in producing), it’s going to be advantageous for your therapy to focus on some of the simpler and more visible vowel sounds, starting with “uh, ah, ee, oo, oh” – these are the five earliest developing vowels.

Modelling these vowels using hand gestures will enhance the learning process and promote visual feedback as shown on Pam Marshalla’s guide.

3. Introduce Diphthongs Building from Basic Vowels (I, ou, oi, ou)

Congratulations! You’re 2 steps forward into helping a child overcome vowel sound difficulties.

As shown on Pam’s video, after perfecting the primary vowels, they can now be used as the structure to help develop the use of diphthongs such as I or eye, ou, oye, and you. Diphthongs have a special gliding sound between two vowels.

Here’s an example:

If you’re going to be teaching I or eye, begin with a brief ah sound followed with a prolonged ee sound. In this transition from ah to ee, the tongue naturally moves in a way that creates a y sound in the middle of these two vowels. This movement will result in the formation of the needed vowel diphthong ultimately producing the word or eye.

Here are other resources you can use (and your patients too!) for diphthong practice:

OU Diphthong
OI Diphthong

4. Progress to Short Vowel Sounds

Using basic ASL (American Sign Language) can remarkably reinforce teaching kids short vowel sounds in speech therapy. Partnering hand gestures with distinct sounds will enhance understanding and retention in children. For instance, instructing how to pronounce short vowels such as “i” in “pin,” “e” in “bed,” “a” in “hat,” “uh” in “cut”, and “ah” in “caught,” and using basic sign language will give visual reference providing the primary idea of vowel sounds.

Although this method is revered as effective, it’s also important to recognize that this approach is merely one of the many avenues that can be used to effectively teach vowel sounds. You as a speech therapist or educator, have the creative freedom to explore more ways to produce unique signs or gestures that can help find a better connection with specific learners. The key to succeeding in how to teach vowel sounds in children is always going to be about consistency and clarity – making sure that these signs are easily recognizable for each vowel sounds. Such uniformity is important as it will help children easily associate physical gestures with its respective sounds, giving a more efficient learning process.

Integrating these multi-sensory learning techniques will offer a more enriching and dynamic learning experience not only for kids with speech difficulties, but with children that face learning challenges as well. It’s an effective method because it accommodates multiple senses, aiding in the reinforcement and retention of language skills.

5. Transition from High to Low Vowels

For kids who have successfully learned the “ee” and “oo” sounds, another great technique to introduce other vowels is by easily transitioning from these established sounds. When making the “ee” sound, the tongue is at it’s highest point in the mouth. By slightly lowering the tongue for this peak position, it will naturally fall into the correct placement for the short “i” sound. Further lowering the tongue will produce the long “a” sound. Continuing this downward movement will then allow the articulation of the short “e” sound, and with the tongue positioned even lower, the short “a” sound can be effectively produced. This approach will leverage the familiarity of already mastered sounds to easily transition into new vowel sounds.

A visual representation of this method can be seen below. Called the Vowel Diagram, it shows the placement of vowels in North American English based on tongue position.

Starting with the “oo” vowel sound, a subtle adjustment in the tongue’s position – just a gentle lowering – brings forth the “oo” sound as heard in the word “book.” Lowering the tongue slightly more paves the way for the long “o” sound, as in “boat.” Further reducing the tongue’s elevation enables the clear articulation of the “ah” vowel sound. This gradual shift in tongue placement is a straightforward yet effective technique for teaching these varied vowel sounds.

6. Implement Contextual Practice and Usage of the Minimal Pair Method

As a child gains proficiency in speaking standalone vowel sounds or using them in basic sound combinations, it’s important to move on to more complex speech tasks. The next step involves incorporating the mastered vowel sounds into words, eventually advancing to phrases and sentences. A particularly effective method is to focus on practicing a single vowel sound across various words while steadily ramping up its complexity. This method will not only reinforce the sound; it will also help the child understand how to use it across different conversational situations, resulting in the betterment of their overall speech and language skills.

Another effective method is the use of minimal pairs – words that differ by a single sound, for example, “bat,” “bet,” and “but.”. This approach is especially effective in enhancing a child’s ability to differentiate and produce distinct vowel sounds. It can help heighten their auditory sensitivity and awareness that will result in helping them better recognize the small differences in speech.

Moreover, the growth from practicing isolated sounds and words to using understandable phrases and sentences is an important step in speech development. This development effectively narrows the gap between exercises in a learning environment and the usage of these skills in daily conversations. For instance, if a child is focusing on the diphthong long “a” sound as in “day,” integrating this sound into relevant, everyday expressions like “Let’s play” serves dual purposes. Remember to use meaningful and engaging words that are tailored to the child’s preferences and environment as much as possible.

Not only will the child strengthen their grasp of the sound, it will also help them understand its practical usage in normal speech patterns. This real-world application is important for holistic speech development as it will enable the child not just to produce sounds correctly, but to use them effectively in natural conversations as well.

Conclusion

Understanding how to teach vowel sounds in speech therapy is a fundamental aspect of nurturing effective communication skills in children, especially those with apraxia of speech, dysarthria, or certain types of speech sound disorders. The journey from isolated sound practice to the application in real-life conversation is a delicate and impactful process. Employing techniques like multi-sensory learning, using minimal pairs, and progressively incorporating sounds into words, phrases, and sentences will help ensure your joint success.

Each of these strategies offers a thoughtful approach to helping children not only articulate vowel sounds accurately but to also understand and use them in their everyday language.

As speech therapists, our goal is to facilitate this journey with patience, creativity, and a deep understanding of each child’s unique learning style, ultimately guiding them towards confident and clear speech.

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References:

Author manuscript; available in PMC 2022 Dec 2.
Published in final edited form as:
SLP Team
Author: SLP Team

Our Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) team is a dedicated group of professionals committed to sharing industry expertise to help you grow your practice and improve how you treat your patients.

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