Vowels only: Improving listening skills by focusing on vowel sounds

Steve Doran, Aoyama Gakuin Universit


Quick guide

  • Key words:Listening skills, vowel sounds, consonant sounds, IPA, pronunciation
  • Learner English level:High beginner and up
  • Learner maturity:High school and up
  • Preparation time:15 minutes
  • Activity time:30 minutes
  • Materials:None

In my experience, the number one challenge of most Japanese learners of English is improving listening skills, especially with regards to vowel sounds. In Japanese, there are about eight such sounds, including diphthongs, while in English there are about twenty vowel sounds, including diphthongs. In English, consonants merely package or wrap themselves around the most important sound– the vowel (Clark & Yallop, 1995). If students don’t learn vowels properly, they will invariably have difficulty understanding what is naturally said to them by native speakers. A great way to learn vowels correctly is to focus on the full range of vowel sounds.

The following activity encourages students to make simple questions and statements consisting solely of correct vowel sounds. Listeners focus on the sounds and guess what is being said. For example, “How are you?” becomes “ow” “aa”“oo”?  “What is your name?” becomes “uh” “i” “oh” “ay”? and so on (see Appendix). It takes a few moments to think about how to ask the questions or say the statements, but the task quickly becomes easy.


Before class, prepare five questions and statements that will be asked or said to your students.


Step 1:Give students a five minute talk on the importance of improving listening skills, the theory of what will be taught and practiced, and a quick introduction to this activity using the introduction above as a model for this brief lecture.

Step 2:Next, read out the questions and statements you prepared and have the students try to guess what you are saying. 

Step 3:Put students into groups of four and have them make their own questions and statements.

Step 4:Groups then challenge each other by asking their questions and saying their statements.

Step 5:Afterwards, have students write down what they heard and as an option, compare it with the correct vowel sounds as represented by the IPA.


Students may think this activity is a bit strange at first, but they will slowly be able to understand what is being asked and said after repeating each question or statement three or four times. Once they understand, they will then be able to create questions and statements on their own. They usually enjoy this unique approach and realize a need to re-evaluate the way they pronounce English vowels and apply what they have learned to words that they already know as well as ones they will learn in the future.


Clark, J., & Yallop, C. (1995). An introduction to phonetics and phonology, 2nd edition. Malden: Blackwell Publishing. 

Appendix: Sample questions and statements

Available below.