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What is a vowel?



Pop quiz time:   What’s the difference between a vowel and a consonant?


Do you know?  I didn’t take linguistics in college (not required for education majors).  So I didn’t learn this until I read some research textbooks on-line after becoming a reading specialist 5 years into my teaching career.   (nerd alert! I read literacy research textbooks for fun so you don’t have to). Anyway, I don’t recall the exact “researchy” definition of a vowel or a consonant, but this is the way I explain it to students:


Vowels open your mouth; consonants close your mouth.


Did you know this?  It was an eye-opening, jaw-dropping moment for me when I realized this (pun intended).   I immediately tested it to just to make sure it was true for every letter and, SPOILER ALERT, it is!  All of a sudden, I understood why there’s such thing as a closed syllable versus an open syllable.    Now I knew why the vowels are “a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y”.   Finally I realized when the “sometimes y” occurs.


After I learned what a vowel is, I started teaching it to the kids in my reading segments. Now it’s one of the first lessons I will do when beginning the school year or launching a new reading group.  Curious the exact language I use? Check out this teaching powerpoint. And here is a freebie I made for the students to use for reference.


I use two types of images to help my visual learners remember this key difference.


  1. Open mouth face versus closed mouth face
  2. Open door versus closed door


For kinesthetic learners, I keep small pocket mirrors in my reading supplies.   The students and I watch in the mirrors as we practice saying all the vowel sounds and see our mouths open wide as we produce them.  Then we see and feel how our mouth must close (partially or all the way) to make the consonant sounds. As a science experiment/performance task, I’ll ask the students to “prove it” for each sound.  I give them 26 index cards (one for each letter) and have them say each sound while looking in the mirror. Then they sort by open or closed mouth/vowel or consonant. This is a fresh way to think about the letters, and my students have always enjoyed and learned from this hands-on task.   It helps them internalize the difference in the letter types, which sets them up for future success when learning the various vowel sounds and syllable types.

TEACHING NOTES: Sometimes students get confused on /g/, /h/, /p/.    The /m/ and /v/ sounds are some of the more obvious ones. I’ll tell them to make a pile of ones they’re not sure about, and we’ll go over them at the end.   If they’re really stuck and confused, show them the jaw and how it is hinging as you say the sounds. You have to start opening your mouth to get out a vowel sound (be it long, short, r-controlled, truly ANY vowel sound).  Your mouth HAS to open to make that sound. Consonant sounds, however, are made by starting to close your mouth. To make the /h/ sound, you have to slightly close your mouth to push the sound out. You have to push your lips closed to make the /p/ sound.


Over the years, I’ve been told by my administrators that my ideas are “outside of the box.”  This instruction falls in that category. It’s not a typical lesson that occurs beyond kindergarten or first grade classrooms.  But it’s an essential piece of my literacy content and one that I’ve taught to all my reading groups, even to students in fourth and fifth grade.  I’ve found that when students truly internalize the difference between vowels and consonants, they have an easier time understanding the categories of syllables and how to change vowel sounds.


Try this lesson with your students and let me know how it goes.   Comment below or email me at

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Minilessons- Where the Magic Happens

Last week I shared many of the struggles I’m currently experiencing in Readers Workshop.     Anytime I have problems to solve in my teaching, one of the first things I do is consult the “masters”/aka Go to My Bookshelf.   I have amassed a collection of education volumes that I use as resources time and again.     (Future blog post:  bookshelf pictures and a list of my favorite go-to titles, if you’re interested)

One of the first books I pulled off the shelf was The Art of Teaching Reading by Lucy Calkins.  Typically, I get lost in the chapters of this book because there’s so much wisdom in its pages.  But this time, I went straight for the minilessons section (Chapter 5) because I was on a hunt for a list of mini-lesson topics I could include in my grade level plans.     I’m searching for decoding mini-lessons that would be relevant for readers of all levels, so that they could apply the learning into their word work and guided reading activities during center time.   I’m looking for what I’ll call “umbrella topics”, ones that fit all my readers needs, even with their broad range of word solving abilities.  Did I find such a list in that chapter?    No.     But what I DID find was even more valuable—–perspective and a new way to think about mini-lessons.

Here are some of the gem quotes and insights I got from my reading:

"Whether we realize it or not, each of us, in our classrooms, authors a world and a story....The important thing to realize is that in our classrooms, as in any story, trouble can galvanize us to set off on a journey.  ~Lucy Calkins"

MLs are the best forum teachers have for pulling the class community together to take on a prob. ~L. Calkins Click To Tweet

"Minilessons may not be as powerful as Peter's magic sword and shield, or as potent as Lucy's vial of healing liquid, but they may be the best forum teachers have for pulling the classroom community together to take on a problem.    They are a gift of sorts, a resource to draw on.   With careful attention to the architecture of our lessons and an assertive responsiveness to our children's needs and goals, minilessons can turn classrooms into places where magic happens."   ~Lucy Calkins

Here are my takeaways from that section/those quotes.   Lucy Calkins, one of the leading literacy experts, actually gives us PERMISSION to screw up and have troubles within our workshops.  She says that she usually dismisses teachers from trainings, saying “When you go back to your classrooms to try out these ideas, they won’t work.  There will be trouble.”

Yay!   It’s so refreshing to hear acknowledgment that we’ll have trouble as we implement and that it’s okay and expected to not get it right the first time.      In this age of electronic evaluations and high teacher accountability, it feels like we’ve got to be perfect in our instruction 100% of the time and that if something doesn’t go smoothly, then that means we’re not good teachers.

What she’s making clear is that it’s our role as teachers to carefully observe our students and guide them on their literacy journeys.     When we notice they’re having trouble decoding, or choosing the correct books, or finishing a book, or understanding what they read, then we gather them together and provide short mini-lessons to give them strategies and tools to use in their real life reading experiences.    Mini-lessons aren’t meant to be long teacher-driven demonstrations or explanations about activity directions (Here’s How to Complete a Venn Diagram).    Rather, our mini-lesson time on the carpet is when we gather as a class community to identify and tackle problems in our reading lives.  This shows the students we care about their reading.   This is responsive teaching.  This is dynamic teaching.  This is relevant learning.    This….is magic.