How to Teach Vowel Sounds

How to Teach Vowel Sounds

When Vowels Typically Emerge
Vowels are typically the first sounds that emerge from our precious little ones and most often not a concern. Starting around 2 months babies begin to “coo” making sounds in the back of their mouth like “ah-ah-ah” and “oh-oh-oh.” By 6 months they have progressed to babbling which involves making sounds with the tongue and the front of the mouth like, “da-da-da-da” and “ma-ma-ma-ma.” At 10-12 months the anxiously awaited first real words will typically make their debut.

What if My Child Doesn’t Say Their Vowels?
But what happens when your child doesn’t follow this developmental sequence? What if your child never really babbled or cooed? What if your child has difficulty even producing the vowels, has very few words if any or is highly unintelligible? If this is the case there is likely something more going on and you should see a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) for a speech and language evaluation.

The Speech Pathologist will assess the child to see if they can determine the cause of the delay. Difficulty with the production of vowels may be due to a number of things, including hearing loss, a cognitive deficit, or a motor speech disorder like Apraxia or dysarthria. Knowing the cause of the delay will help the SLP as she works with the parents to create a treatment plan.

Teach the Early Vowels First (uh, ah, ee, oo and oh)
So if it is determined that your child produces only a few vowels, or is inconsistent with their vowel productions teaching vowel sounds is a good place to start.

Vowels - Mommy Speech Therapy

To teach the vowel sounds start with the 5 earliest developing vowels uh, ah, ee, oo and oh. Modeling these vowels with hand cues is a great way to provide more visual feedback and help teach the vowels. I’ve linked a helpful video below of Pam Marshalla, an SLP and expert in motor speech disorders demonstrating the hand cues she uses to teach these vowels.

Click here to watch the video “Pam’s Place Cues – Vowels”

Teach Diphthongs From the Early Vowels (I, ou, oye and you)
As you saw in the video, once the first five vowels are mastered use them to teach the diphthongs I or eye, ou, oye, and you. For example, to teach “I” or “eye” start with a short “ah” vowel and follow it with a long “ee” vowel. As the “ah” transitions into the “ee” the tongue naturally glides creating the y sound between the two vowels ultimately producing our desired vowel diphthong or the word “I” or “eye.”

Finish with the Short Vowels
You can use hand cues to teach the short vowels as well (“i” as in kiss, “e” as in pet, “a” as in bat, “oo” as in book, and “ah” as in caught).

Vowels - Mommy Speech Therapy

In the video Pam uses the ASL alphabet signs for these but you can make up any signs you’d like. She uses the sign language sign for “i” as a cue for the short i, the sign for “e” as a cue for the short e, the sign for “a” as a cue for the short a, the sign for “u” as a cue for the “oo” as in book, and finally the sign for “c” as a cue for the “ah” vowel.

From High Vowels to Low Vowels
Another way to teach the vowels is to shape them from the “ee” and the “oo” if the kids have already mastered these. When the “ee” is said the tongue is at its highest position as you lower the tongue just slightly it is now in the correct position for saying the short “i” sound. When you lower it a little more it is in position for the long “a” sound, a little lower and you can say the short “e” sound and even lower you can say the short “a” sound.

Below you can see the Vowel Diagram (or Quadrilateral) showing the North American English Vowel Placement. You can download this diagram here.

Vowels - Mommy Speech Therapy

If you start with the “oo” vowel and then lower the tongue just slightly you can say the “oo” (as in book), a little lower you can say the long “o” sound (as in boat), even lower you can say the “ah” vowel.

Teaching Vowels With Visual Feedback
If you watch closely you can see the jaw drop just slightly each time a lower vowel is said. Sometimes this is enough and if it works with the child, perfect, you can move on.

If you need more visual feedback and you want to get a clear visual representation of high and low vowels and the relationship between the vowels Vowel Viz, an app by Complete Speech is an innovative speech mapping tool that displays vowel production in real-time and is available for the iPhone and iPad. It is an amazing tool for teaching vowels and shaping vowels and diphthongs from other vowels.

Here’s the tutorial video for VowelViz for more details on how the app works:

Creating Words From Vowels
Meaningful communication should be our goal with these kids that have few, if any words or are highly unintelligible. So I want to share with you these word strips I created for 8 words you can teach from vowel sounds alone that you can download and practice with your child.

Download the vowel word strips here.

Vowels - Mommy Speech Therapy

If you’re like me, every new word your child says is cause for a celebration, especially when we as parents have to wait an exceptionally long time for those words to come!

If you are still waiting for those first words, and the vowels have been difficult in coming, work with your SLP together and try some of these techniques, including the 8 words from the word strips included above.

Best of luck working on these super fun vowel sounds and remember to be patient and always make it fun. You can do it!

2 Comments

  1. Hi Heidi,
    I have a 20 month old son , he really has never said the /m/ sound, so no mama-ma for me yet 🙁
    He had said da-da-da, or ta-ta. I have tried a couple of suggestions like eating his favorite cookie and pointing to it , calling it a cookie but he just cries ( read sky is falling!) when he doesn’t get the cookie. I don’t know how to teach him the intent to communicate. Every meal, I show him, “eat”, do it with my hand, do it with his hand but if I don’t give food to him, he won’t ask for it. I don’t know how much pressure is enough pressure and have slowly begun to lose patience. He babbles, has conversations in his language, understands every word I say and follows instruction. He is in a bilingual environment and I use an easy word irrespective of the language just to get him to speak. Please advise.

  2. Hi Jamie,
    It sounds like you have tried some good ideas so far. It’s good that he seems to be understanding of what you say and that he is following directions. However, his expressive language skills do sound a little delayed. A typical guideline for expressive language is that children should have about 50 words by the time they are 2 years old. Children in a bilingual environment should develop language skills just as any other child would. When you say he has conversations in his language, are you referring to his own little baby language? Or does he use words in the other language he is being raised in. If that were the case it’s best to talk to your child in the language he’s most comfortable with. However, if the lack of expression is occurring in both languages, you may want to consult an SLP, preferably one who has experience working with bilingual children. In the meantime, continue trying to find ways to engage your child that are motivating to him. Food is usually a good motivator, but it sounds like it may be upsetting for him thinking you are eating his food. Try finding a toy or an activity that is motivating, but not upsetting for him. You can take turns with games, toys, or bubbles by using the modeling the phrase “my turn”, or labeling the object. You will have to model the communication for him at first a few times, and then you will want to try to slowly get him to ask or request the object. At first you may want to praise or reward him for any type of vocalization that is close, even if it’s not the exact word. By rewarding and praising these approximations, he will begin to make the connection that he has to actually say something to get what he wants. Good luck!