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6 Tips to Help Distinguish Between Short I and Short E

Does your child have a hard time spelling words with the sounds of short I and short E? If so, it may be because he struggles to differentiate between these two vowel sounds. It’s a common spelling problem for young children. In this post, you’ll learn what causes this issue and how to solve it.

First let’s talk about some regional differences. Listen to this short video clip to hear how I (a Wisconsinite) and Cheryl (who is from Missouri) pronounce some common words.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with either pronunciation—both are completely correct! But this video really illustrates the root of the short I/short E confusion, doesn’t it? In some areas of the country, pairs of words such as sit and set, bit and bet, and when and win are pronounced identically. And you may be interested to know that there’s actually an official name for this: the Pin-Pen Merger.

Areas of the U.S. Affected by the Pin-Pen Merger

Are you curious how the Pin-Pen Merger affects you? Find your location on the map below. If you live in a blue area—the Southern states, Texas, and a few other scattered areas—chances are good that most people in your area pronounce pin and pen identically. Most commonly, the merger comes into play when I and E come before nasal consonants like M and N.

Map showing the areas where the pin-pen merger occurs

Regional Variations Are the Spice of Life!

Before we continue, I want to make an important point. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having different pronunciations for words in various areas of the country or the English-speaking world. Regional differences are fascinating! Our only goal here is to help your child spell words that contain short I and short E sounds.

So let’s dig in!

6 Ways to Help Your Child Spell Words with Short I and Short E

Here are six things you can do to tackle short I and short E spelling problems.

  1. For beginning spellers, teach words with short I and short E in different lessons. If you try to teach them in the same lesson, you drastically increase the chances that your child will become confused. As a good example of proper spacing, the All About Spelling Level 1 program teaches words with short I in Lesson 7. Then 3 lessons later, in Lesson 10, words with short E are taught. The space between these lessons gives your child the chance to master one set of words before new (and potentially confusable) words are introduced.
  2. first page from Steps 1-10 in All About Spelling
  3. Provide extra practice. The free activity below will give your child extra practice in distinguishing between short I and short E.
  4. Pin or Pen Download
  5. “Pronounce for spelling.” Pronouncing for spelling means that we say the word very clearly, exaggerating the vowel sound. In the normal rhythm of speech, vowel sounds are often muffled. So when it’s time to spell, it’s important to slow down and drag out the pronunciation so your child can hear the vowel sound very clearly.
  6. Pin or Pen? Solving Short I / Short E Confusion
  7. Watch your mouth. Have your child watch your mouth as you make the sounds /ĭ/ and /ĕ/. The mouth should be open taller when you say the short E sound than when you say the short I sound. Now have your child make the sounds while watching himself in the mirror. For some kids, it may be easier to feel this with their mouth than to see it. This part can seem silly, so have fun playing with the sounds as you do this exercise.
  8. Have your child repeat the dictated word back to you. When you dictate a word for your child to spell, have him say it back to you with the exaggerated pronunciation before he spells it. Make any necessary corrections and have him repeat the pronunciation. When it’s time to work on Word Cards, follow this procedure. Say the word normally to see if your child can come up with the correct pronunciation for spelling before he tries to spell the word. For words where this is necessary, your child should remember both the pronunciation and the spelling before moving the card behind the Mastered divider.
  9. Treat some words as homophones. Finally, you may need to treat some words as homophones. Homophones are words that sound alike but are spelled differently. Where I live, bin and Ben are pronounced differently, but they may sound alike in your area. If this is the case, dictate the word in a sentence so your child has the additional help of hearing the word used in context.

Learning to discriminate between the /ĭ/ and /ĕ/ sounds will help your student immensely in spelling. So working on this skill is well worth the time spent.

Do you live in the beige area on the map or in the blue area? Are your kids affected by the Pin-Pen Merger? Let us know in the comments below! And then download my free “6 Ways We Make Spelling Easy” e-book to learn about more great ways to help your child with spelling.

6 Ways We Make Spelling Easy

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Heather

says:

Great tip!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you!

Katharine Gindin

says:

These are very helpful. It sounds obvious, but I hadn’t thought to treat the words as homophones when you are working with someone who pronounces a short i and a short e word the same. Makes so much sense.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Katharine,
I’m glad this was helpful for you!

RaShell Southerland

says:

This was so helpful! Thank you.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, RaShell!

Joyce

says:

This is so helpful! Thank you for the tips!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this was helpful, Joyce! You’re welcome.

Sandra

says:

I teach K-2 ELA. This is great! Can’t wait to use it in small groups!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m so glad this will be helpful for your students, Sandra!

Caitlin

says:

We’ve been having to review this a lot lately. Great tips – thank you!

Merry

says: Customer Service

It’s definitely tricky for a lot of people! I hope the tips help :-).

Heather

says:

This is so helpful! We’re struggling with this now

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this is helpful, Heather!

Julie Herd

says:

These are excellent tips and the activity is a fun reinforcement tool!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Julie!

Lori Wilson

says:

This blog post is so helpful to me because this is something my 9 year old still struggles with. All About Reading and Spelling have really been a game changer for him in breaking through on learning, but weekly he misspells or says the i for e and vice versa. I am going to try these tricks. Thank you for your amazing program. It really has made my homeschooler a reader finally.

Angie

says:

Definite tricky for kids when we pronounce them the same! Thanks fir the tips!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Angie! Yes, they are tricky.

Becca

says:

This was very helpful. Thank you.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Becca.

Kelly Mazurak

says:

Wonderful! Thank you for the extra practice sheets also! We LOVE AAR!!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Kelly! I hope they will be helpful for you.

Rebecca

says:

I’m so glad I saw this! This is one of the things my 7 year old is struggling with the most. Thanks for the info!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Rebecca. I’m glad this is helpful, but if you need more ideas about this or any other topic one of your children has trouble with, please let us know. We love to help!

Amy

says:

Wow. This is extremely interesting. My young son has some difficulties pronouncing words. This will definitely help him.

Vidhya G

says:

Wonderful tips. Thank you for clearing the confusion of teaching E and I. One tip that resonated with me is teach in different lessons. Thank you.

Sarah M.

says:

Great article! Very helpful!

Brandie

says:

I was always so scared to teach reading and spelling. But this curriculum has made it SO easy and my girls love it!

Sabrina Cody

says:

Helpful tips!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Glad it’s helpful, Sabrina!

Holly

says:

I’m going to have my kids watch this video!

Sara

says:

Thanks for the help!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Sara!

Sharon M

says:

This has been so helpful

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m pleased to hear this is helpful for you, Sharon! However, if you have questions or need anything, just let me know.

Geetika

says:

Very helpful tip

Allison

says:

This is great

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Glad you like it, Allison!

Jennifer Engstrom

says:

We just ran into a pronounce for spelling problem for the first time here—magnet and admit both sound like short i, but because my daughter knows magnet by heart, she spelled it correctly and the spelled admit “admet “ ? thanks for this post!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Jennifer. Yes, that short e or short i in an unaccented syllable can be very tricky. I’m glad this was helpful for your daughter.

Erika

says:

Thank you for this post. I have from the literal eastern tip of Indiana where short e and short i are interchangeable. But I am raising my kids in eastern Pennsylvania. My daughter is struggling with i and e, and no wonder!! My husband often corrects my pin and pen! East coast pronunciations are a bit for on the nose than where I grew up :) Anyway, I was trying to be very careful about the way I pronounced during the short i and short e lessons, but G is still struggling with the sounds within the words, even though she has mastered the i and e phonogram cards.
I did have a question. I was wondering if there is a historical reason why there is a little upward shoot of this in Indiana. My guess is the Great Depression, but with our varied immigration history, it could be anything. It is so interesting how so many accents are within the English speaking world! I’m geeking out a little bit. Thank you for all of your help!!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Interesting question about the history of the Pin Pen Merger, Erika. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it. As best as I can discern, it seems the merger shifted northward from the southern states in the decades following the Civil War. Good guess on the Great Depression, but it appears that that spread the merger westward, not northward.

Erika

says:

Thanks for the info! So interesting!!

Jennifer B

says:

Thanks for this! We are not in the blue area, but my 1st grader is having a difficult time with short i or short e spelling excercises. He has been so frustrated. Going to try the suggestions here and hope it finally clicks! Thanks again!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Let me know how it goes, Jennifer. I’m interested in knowing if this helps your child or if you need additional ideas.

Paulette

says:

I can not hear vowel sounds is there a book or program where I can put in vowel sound are marked long or short?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Paulette,
Our Phonogram Sounds app will speak phonogram sounds for you. The vowels are A, E, I, O, and U and the first sound of each is short and the second sound of each is long.

Is this what you were asking about, or is there something else you need?

Mel

says:

I have an ELL student who is unable to pronounce the short i sound– he always pronounces it like the short e sound. We are in Tennessee, a state that is in the blue area. I pronounce words like pin and pen the same, but I am careful to say them as different words when speaking to students like him. Any suggestions on how to help him pronounce the short i sound correctly?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Mel,
I think you will find the videos from Rachel’s English helpful. These videos are made for adult English Language Learners and are complicated and detailed, so you will need to view them and learn from them to help your student. They will help you to teach your student the differences in mouth, jaw, tongue, and lip placement for sounds. You may also consider referring him to speech therapy for additional professional help with this sound and others.

Regardless, when short i and short e are so thoroughly merged, students often have to learn these words by sight as if they were homophones. Pin and pen (and mint/meant, bit/bet, and many others) may have to be treated the way words like there and their are.

I’m sorry I’m not more help with this, Mel. Such sound mergers can be tricky, to the point that it can become difficult for someone who grew up with such a merger to even hear the difference. I know this personally, as I grew up with the western North American cot/caught merger, where the sounds of short o and aw/au have merged to be the same sound. Even with Rachel’s English’s very careful and exaggerated pronunciation, I have a lot of trouble hearing the difference between the sounds.

Barbara

says:

I am tutoring a first grader who lives in Texas. He pronounces them the same.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Barbara,
Yes, short I and short E are the same for most Texans. Let me know if you need more ideas than what is in this blog post to help your student learn to spell words with these sounds.

June

says:

I am so glad I found this. I have a student who cannot differentiate between the short i and e. He is from one of the states in blue. Now I never knew that some areas in the country pronounce them the same. Now I know how to help him, because I never had this situation before. Thank you!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, June! The Pin/Pen Merger is just one regional accent that can play havoc on learning to read and spell, but it’s just a widespread one for such very common vowel sounds. Another is the Cot/Caught Merger, common in western North America. In it, the short O, AU, AW, and third sound of A are all the same sound, so cot and caught are perfect homophones.

If you have other questions about distinguishing sounds or having trouble with spelling, just ask. I find regional accents and various spelling issues fascinating!