What Is The Vowel Valley?

vowels Apr 22, 2022

Individual phoneme production is an integral part of reading and spelling instruction. As educators, we need to be solid in understanding and implementing individual speech sounds. Students need to be able to isolate phonemes to segment. The skill of segmenting is the ability to take apart individual phonemes and sounds within words. 

Throughout history, scholars have been fascinated with understanding the production of sounds. This work primarily rested with phoneticians, linguists who specialize in phonics, especially the work of Dr. Daniel Jones.

Professor Daniel Jones's system of Cardinal Vowels is one of his most lasting legacies. His chart, developed in 1917, is still referenced as we work with sounds and articulation. I was so excited when I came across the 4th edition of his book An English Pronouncing Dictionary (1937), in which his Outline of English Phonetics chart shows his system of Cardinal Vowels and the English Vowels.

I will leave the work and descriptions of the connections to the amazing Speech-Language Pathologists and linguists who use the International Phonetics Alphabet (IPA). For those of us teaching reading, the primary relationship is understanding how the articulatory features can be used with students to distinguish the vowel sounds.

The deficit in the phonological component of language within the International Dyslexia Association's definition of dyslexia connects to our work with speech sounds. Children, especially those with a language-based learning difference like dyslexia, need direct, strongly auditory-based instruction in each of the 44 English language sounds to build sound-symbol correspondences. The relationship and discrimination between phoneme production and phonological awareness lead to more effective reading and spelling. The awareness of our tongue and mouth placement position can assist students who struggle with distinguishing phonemes. 

You can read about the consonant articulatory features and watch the videos HERE.

How does this relate to dyslexia instruction?

The instruction we have used for years to teach students with dyslexia is the science of reading in action. At the core of many therapeutic dyslexia programs lies this explicit instruction in these articulation features. In a speech-to-print approach, programs such as Take Flight utilize a sound wall and emphasize the mouth placement and articulatory features. The collection of research that supports this work is not new. We know that this works best for our learners with dyslexia, but it also is beneficial to all students. It's wonderful to see this knowledge bridging into practice in our classrooms. 

What is the Vowel Valley?

The vowel valley is a chart that helps put this awareness into a visual representation of the mouth movements. In dyslexia education, the vowel valley, or a version of it, has been used for decades. This educational tool is set up based on the mouth placement of the vowel sounds. All vowels are open and voiced in their production, so we need to bring awareness to the mouth placement to assist students in differentiating sounds. 

When we explicitly teach phonemes' articulatory features, we are helping to create links between the individual speech sounds and the letter representations. Sound production and mouth formations are key to helping students link the phonemes, those sounds that they hear, to the graphemes, which are the letter representations of those spoken sounds. They also provide students and teachers with cues for error corrections. Explicitly teaching these to our students provides them with the knowledge and ability to analyze sounds in a deeper way. 

Individual phoneme production is an integral part of reading and spelling instruction. Students need to be able to isolate phonemes to segment. The skill of segmenting is the ability to take apart individual phonemes, or sounds, within words. Think of these as the parking spots for the letters representing these sounds. When we help students identify the placement of their mouth for individual sound production, we create a connection between what we are hearing and how that sound feels in our mouth.

⭐️Click on image 👆to read more about the resource.

The vowel valley shows the 19 vowel phonemes (sounds) in the English language. The vowel sounds can be distinguished from one another by the placement of the tongue and the shape of the mouth. We can help students identify where their tongue is placed (front, middle, back), if it is high or low in the mouth, and what the lips are doing (smiling, open, rounded). 

Sound discrimination can be tricky for some students, especially the short e and short i sounds. Many children will confuse these two vowel sounds in phonology work, reading, spelling, and sometimes running speech. Some students may also struggle with phonological processing, have speech sound errors, sound substitutions, omit sounds, add sounds, or distort sounds. Read all about my tip for this HERE.

The front vowels, which I refer to as the smiling vowels, are located on the left side of the vowel valley. The frontmost vowel sound, /ē/ is produced with the lips pulled back in a big smile and the tongue high in the mouth. From this position, the chin slightly drops as the mouth opens, and the tongue drops slightly with each vowel sound until we reach the open vowel /ŏ/. 

Use a mirror to watch your mouth as you produce each sound. You can place your hand under your chin to help " feel" the chin drop as you say each vowel sound. What did you notice? Did you feel the shift in your tongue placement? In the amount of openness as your chin dropped? Your smile lessens as we move down the valley. 

When you reach the bottom of the valley, your mouth is open. This is the short o sound production. We call this the open vowel sound. 

Use a mirror and watch how your chin opens as you produce this sound. 

Then, we move back up the vowel valley as our mouth rounds more and more until we reach the top. You can see the shape of the mouth tightens as we move to the /u/ sound. Remember that the focus of the vowel valley is sound production. 

The remaining vowel sounds are located outside of the valley. They are diphthongs, r-controlled vowels, and schwa. 

A diphthong is a union of two vowels within one syllable in which the vowel positions glide from one to another. The diphthongs on the vowel valley chart are /oi/ and /ou/. 

It is important to note that additional diphthongs are noted in speech production, such as the long i, but are placed on the vowel valley. Most programs designed for reading instruction and intervention place the long i on the vowel valley and not as a diphthong. 

R-controlled vowels, sometimes called Bossy-r or vowel-r syllables, are vowel sounds in which the r alters the vowel sound. They are: /er/, /ar/, and /or/. 

Teaching The Lazy Schwa 

Schwa is the most common vowel sound in the English language and can be represented by any vowel. Sometimes called the "lazy vowel" because the sound production is usually softer and weaker - the unstressed syllable in words. When we explicitly teach schwa, we can have students identify the stressed and unstressed syllables. I think schwa needs its own video and post! Stay tuned!

Some of the therapeutic programs may have the vowels in a slightly different order - but the sound production and articulatory features remain their primary focus. 

When we bring the focus to the articulatory features through our instruction and consistently model correct sound production in isolation, we are helping students solidify the connection between what they hear and feel as they make sounds. 

We follow up with lots of activities where students identify the sounds in isolation, within words, and connect to reading and spelling applications. This is a key piece of the speech-to-print approach. 

I hope the video above 👆helps alleviate some of those sound confusions.

Additional Resources

If you would like more resources for connecting speech to print, check out these resources. 

Connecting Speech-to-Print Bundle

Mini Sound Wall Bundle

Mini Vowel Valley Chart 

Mouth Cards


Join The Dyslexia Classroom community

A collective of educators and parents creating connections and deepening understanding and knowledge through an empathetic approach to best help our children on their path with dyslexia.