Search
  • Sasha

Single Vowel Staircase

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when we read we begin with A, B, D……

Wait a minute, why do we skip C? In 1966, a seminal piece of research in reading and spelling, Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences as Cues to Spelling Improvement, done by Hanna, Hanna, Hodges and Rudorf explored the relative frequency of letters and sounds, phonemes and graphemes in our language, as well as figuring out some very practical ideas for teachers such as, what language does a given word derive from? Where is the sound in the word, beginning, middle or end?

When I start to teach beginning reading and spelling to kindergarteners, third graders or adults, I start with teaching single vowels and single consonants.

Why the single vowels? Because the majority of syllables and words in English are built around single vowels.

It is also common wisdom in Structured Literacy that we teach the letters and their sounds directly, clearly and emphasize how they are formed in the mouth to give our students another input system to anchor the letters and sounds. Patricia Lindamood, Dr. Louisa Moats, and Dr. Mary Dahlgren all have created a visual conceptual framework for understanding how the reader/speller forms the vowels

using the lips, tongue and jaw. I have narrowed my lessons down to begin with the single vowels, and I use a visual memory device, the Single Vowel Staircase.

The Single Vowel Staircase


These letters vary because of how open or closed the jaw is, moving from the top step to the bottom step. Another way of describing this is that the lips and jaw are closed at the top of the staircase and they slowly, gradually open as the vowels are pronounced on each lower step. In order to aid my students in feeling this gradient, I ask them to put their hand on their cheek, thumb under their jaw and the other fingers on the side of their face. I then pick two vowels and ask them which vowel is pronounced with the jaw more closed, more open.

In this manner we compare and place the vowels on the staircase.

If you want a step-by-step description of this lesson, check out my book, A Teacher's Guide to Teaching Reading and Spelling, Bringing the Science of Reading into the Classroom with Orthography and Letter/Sound Patterns,

Syllable Types, and Morphology.

The Single Vowel Staircase becomes an anchoring point that aids my students when they are reading or spelling a word. I can say, “Go back to the staircase, how does this single vowel sound?” when they are reading. When they are spelling a word and are unsure about what letter goes along with the sound of the vowel in that particular word, I can refer them back to the staircase and ask them to say the sounds and find out which letter matches the sound of the vowel in the word they are spelling.