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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
distinguishing between short i and short e pinterest graphic
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Brenda F.

says:

My kids were born in the south, but my husband and I are from the north. We live in the south and my kids all have trouble reading and spelling the /i/ and /e/ sounds. I already do half of your suggestions. I want to try the worksheet soon and see how much that helps. Thanks!

I’ve been trying to find a video of my grandson (at about age 5) in which he demonstrates some linguistic flexibility.
Mom: “What do you call the place Grama puts her car?” D: The gaRAGE.
Mom:What do you call the place where you put your bike at Uncle P’s house (uncle is British/Irish)?
D: The GERHage.
Cracks me up every time I watch it.

Merry at AALP

says: Customer Service

That sounds so cute!!

Barbara

says:

Thank you Marie for all your words of wisdom! I am slowly understanding some of the difficulties that my son experiences in differentiating sounds as well as printed words. Your posts relieve some of my “flipping-out” tendencies in response to his not “getting it” when all my other children have understood phonics and can read. This post will help as we continue to distinguish all the vowel sounds.

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

Hi Barbara! Thanks for your comment! This post on auditory processing disorder may also be helpful to you: http://blog.allaboutlearningpress.com/auditory-processing-disorder/

Becca

says:

This is great! You guys have to do more blogs about how to compensate for other American accents! I drive my husband nuts with my rural Ohio accent. I grow up with everyone saying “puh-tata” for potato. Then, because of his Chicago accent, my kids hear “tr” as “ch” and can’t seem to grasp the “th” sound (Da Bears!)

Merry at AALP

says: Customer Service

Oh Becca, I feel your pain! When I first married my husband (also from Chicago), I remember coaching him on how to speak at interviews–everything was “deese, dem, dose, dat…” He has a huge vocabulary (knows many more words than I do–I learn a lot from him!) but the pronunciation of simple words hurt my ears! Now he reserves his “d’s” for football–da coach!

Did your husband ever talk about a “frunch” room? I couldn’t figure out why all these homes had “French” rooms until I asked, and found out it was actually a FRONT room!

The chr/tr confusion is one I hear about fairly often. The pattern chr actually never occurs in English, unless the ch is standing for the hard /k/ sound, as in Christmas etc… There are no /ch/ sounds before the /r/ sound in English. So when they hear “chr,” let them know that it’s always going to be a tr. If they are only hearing a /ch/ sound with no /r/ sound, then I would show them the words with tiles first and have them practice segmenting and reading the word (point to each sound, say the sounds, then blend them into a word).

If you think about how we make the /t/ and /ch/ sound, they are almost identical. We tend to use a bit more of the tip of the tongue to make the /t/ sound, but it’s close. Then if you make the tr blend slowly, you can see how similar the tongue feels to the /ch/ position. You might talk your kids through this and have them feel how close the positions are–or even get silly in front of a mirror together. Sometimes it can help to get in front of a mirror together and be silly as you make the sounds, so the child can both see and hear how to make the sound, then try to imitate it and feel the difference in their own mouths.

Here is a short, 5-minute video put out by Rachel’s English on tr vs. chr sounds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jK7o49tFylM

She does videos for people learning English as a second language, but I find them very helpful for understanding why kids make some mistakes like these–she clearly shows the mouth and lip positions, and it’s information you might be able to draw from when you explain to your kids how to make the sounds (and therefore how to hear and spell them). (The video is mainly for you–most kids wouldn’t be too interested!)

I hope this helps.

Rachel

says:

Hello again, just reading about the ch sounds and others. My 17 year old son is dyslexic but he can now read at a grade 6 level fairly fluently. When he first was learning the sounds the letters made he couldn’t understand why he should circle truck or train for the sound “t”. It sounded to him like chruck and chrain.
Rachel

Becca

says:

Thank you Merry! All of this will really help us out! :D

Anne

says:

I’m a Pennsylvanian living in Canada where my husband (a Michigander) and I are planting a church for Chinese immigrants. We lived in Beijing for almost 2 years, so we understand how it feels to have our Mandarin pronunciation corrected by people who speak with different accents! But I LOVED your post because we had a little girl from Taiwan staying with us this summer to practice her English. I used AAS to teach her, and she made great progress. It was so much fun! The trouble we ran into was that she couldn’t distinguish between spelling short words with /e/ or /i/. It seemed that she always picked the opposite one, and it was so frustrating for her. When I explained the trouble to her cousin (an adult who has lived here since she was 14), she said, “I STILL have trouble with that.” When I asked her how she handled it, she said sheepishly, “I just guess.” I think your handout may be a help. Thank you!

Rachel

says:

Me again. I wanted to suggest “My Fair Lady” as a good movie to watch. It really does help people understand the differences in the way people speak the same language.

Marie Rippel

says: Customer Service

Ooh, that’s a great suggestion! Thanks, Rachel! :)

Merry at AALP

says: Customer Service

Ay not I, O not Ow, Don’t say “Rine,” say “Rain”…

LOVE My Fair Lady!

Rachel

says:

Hello Marie: I am a Canadian married to a Barbadian and living in Barbados for 28 years. Both countries are part of the Commonwealth so I have “spelling corrections” to do in the American books I use. Obviously, Canada being so far north and Barbados being in the middle of the earth there are a lot of differences in the way words are pronounced. My biggest problem is hear, ear, and hair; and beer, bare, and bear etc. Barbadians think these words are homophones!!!! They can’t hear the ee at all. Of course, Canadians say “been” rhymes with “seen” not “bin” and “shone” rhymes with “on” not “bone”, so I guess it just depends on where you live.

Merry at AALP

says: Customer Service

How interesting, Rachel! By the way we do have some suggested adjustments for those using “British” spelling and pronunciation–feel free to email us at support@allaboutlearningpress.com for a copy.

Regina Bonnette

says:

Thank you for this! I laughed hard when I read the pen/pin merger. I was raised in Texas with Texas parents until I was 13 and moved to northern Minnesota. To say the least, people could not understand me when I used these words! Now I have a 6 year old who was born in Texas and we just moved to Florida where I am homeschooling her. Hopefully we can divert this issue!

Kim

says:

Thank you so much for this post. I was raised in Central Illinois and I never realized before trying to teach my children spelling, that I can not say pin and pen as different words. Thank you for these tips and for making me realize that I’m obviously not alone in this.

Helen B

says:

Thank you so much for this blog post! I was born in Floridia and lived there until I was 7 years old when my family moved to New Zealand. I was home educated so I haven’t lost all my accent. But every now and again I would be given a bit of grief over this exact thing. I say pin when I mean pen. More recently I’ve been asked why I spoke like this and I didn’t know. I assumed it was a family thing. So thank you. Now I know. I will say my mixed up accent is cause trouble with my kids when it comes to spelling. : )

Merry at AALP

says: Customer Service

It IS interesting what moving around can do to one’s accent!

RoseAnn

says:

I love this! We live in the purple area, but I am originally from the white area, so our children are exposed to both Pin-Pen! I look forward to using this worksheet.

Rachel

says:

Oh YES! This is a real problem here in Mississippi!!! We also run into short-a sounds like short-e when before /n/ Like Andrew and egg have nearly the same beginning sounds. I’ve finally just told my kids that we speak Southern and we just have to learn the spelling in the context – so funny because I’m often asked where I’m from and told I don’t have a Southern accent. :)

Merry at AALP

says: Customer Service

LOL, Rachel!

Nikki

says:

I grew up in Northern IL and my husband grew up in OK, I give him a hard time about it (until now) and fear our children are going to pronounce things like him. Thankfully we live in Southern CA so it’s not what they hear on a day to day basis in our community. Thank you for this post.

Aimee

says:

I am in Wisconsin, and here the trouble is between the /a/ and /e/ sounds. They pronounce flag as fleg around here. I am originally from Nebraska where we say it flag, so those 2 letters have caused us some trouble in phonics and spelling, as my children are picking up what they hear the most in our region and I am trying to teach them the correct way!

Melissa

says:

We live in North Carolina and we pronounce everything like the short /i/ and never even realized it until we began using All About Spelling. It is quite difficult to remember to stop and think how to pronounce it correctly for my son who struggles with dyslexia. Often I don’t realize my mistake until I see that he has spelled the word incorrectly. It can be frustrating for both of us, but you have done a great job in distinguishing the difference and this curriculum has helped my son son tremendously. Your work is greatly appreciated and though It has been slow and labor intensive for him, progress has been made and he is now in level 3 in both spelling and reading. I think I have learned as much as he has! :)

Merry at AALP

says: Customer Service

Hi Melissa,

It sounds like you have both worked hard. Congratulations on his progress!

Esther

says:

What about children who can’t seem to hear the /ng/ sound? For a long time I thought it was only a pronunciation issue, (“Mommy, I was sinnin’.” “You were…oh, you were SINGING!”) but I’ve recently realized that she really doesn’t HEAR the difference. I know there are some regions where the g is frequently dropped, but we don’t live in one of those regions! :-)

Robin E. at All About Learning Press

says: Customer Service

Esther,
My first question is how old the child is. Some sounds take longer for a child to master. However, ng in sing is a fairly early one, so if she is above 4 or so, I would expect it to no longer be a problem. Also, does she have trouble with other sounds as well? You can refer to this chart for an idea of which sounds most kids can say at which age.

For n versus ng, take a look at this video. Depending on your daughter’s age, this video will be more for you to understand the differences in the mouth as the sounds are produced and then for you to explain and show her. Take her in front of a mirror and have some silly fun as you say lots of words. The difference is subtle, but working on it in the mirror and with eyes closed to really feel the position of the tongue and jaw may be just what she needs.

After she has a better understanding of the difference, I would use the kind of activity explained in this blog post. Say words that end in ng and words that don’t but otherwise sound the same, and see if she can point to the n tiles for the ones that don’t and to the ng tile for the ones that do. Word pairs could be sane and sang, sin and sing, tin and ting, song and son, and many more. Note, if she is younger and does not yet know letters, you could change the activity to her pointing to the front of the mouth or the back of the jaw. It may take playing like this for a little each day for a while before she really starts to self correct her own speech.

Evelyn

says:

Thank you very much for publishing this article! A few months ago, I called the AAL learning office and asked about this very topic. The information above has been printed and is already waiting for our next spelling lesson. Have a wonderful week.

sabrina

says:

We have had some difficulty with words like pin/pen and get. My grandmother was from England and spoke every word very crisply. Though I’m not like her having been raised in Eastern Virginia, I thought my pronunciation was very good…Until I started teaching and realized that I said things like, “git,” instead of “get,” as well as the tin/ten, pin/pen words. My son gets them correct when I am careful to pronounce them correctly. Love the materials and the help!!

Robin E. at All About Learning Press

says: Customer Service

Sabrina,
But don’t assume your English grandmother pronounced everything correctly. The English often put an /ar/ sound in place of a short a that comes before s, f, and th. Bath becomes barth. Depending on where she was from in England too, she likely dropped h from the beginning of words and/or added an r to the end of them (such as elp for help and idear for idea).

Every regional accent has it’s issues. No one of them is “right” for every word.

Patricia Eleftheriou

says:

Being raised in the south, I certainly understand the confusion. Some one once gave me this little sentence to help tell the difference. “You wouldn’t call your friend Peg a pig.” Don’t know if it will help anyone else. Love your materials and blog!

Robin E. at All About Learning Press

says: Customer Service

Patricia,
I love your Peg/pig memory help! Thank you for sharing.

This is timely! I have a new student who definitely has this problem! But he’s a smart cookie so I think this will really help him.

Robin E. at All About Learning Press

says: Customer Service

Nancy,
I love when our posts are timely for someone’s needs!

Amelie

says:

We live in NJ, where it should not be a pronunciation problem, but my son never really conquered the short e/short i difference. He has severe dyslexia and also seems to be unable to differentiate other sounds as well.

As much as I love phonics, I don’t think it is as effective for him as it should be. Could it be that some students will always struggle to learn to read by learning the sounds?

Now that he is 13, his reading is better, but not very strong. He does better with the visual configuration of the word than with the sounds. He just cannot hear the difference!

Leanne

says:

We are also from the North, but are dealing with the same issues of dyslexia and being unable to discern the sounds of short e and i.

Merry at AALP

says:

Hi Amelie,

I’m sorry that your son is struggling. This sounds like he also has an Auditory Processing struggle along with the dyslexia (which is somewhat common). This article has some tips that can help: http://blog.allaboutlearningpress.com/auditory-processing-disorder/

Both of my kids dealt with some auditory processing struggles. One really had trouble hearing consonant blends (such as the ending of bent or beginning of plan) which affected both reading and spelling for a long time. The other struggles (as I do) with separating spoken words–the words run together and don’t make sense. Slowing down and adding visual reinforcement can really help.

When a student struggles with auditory processing, it’s all the more important to use multi-sensory methods. You want to strengthen the weaker pathway while also including their stronger pathways. This article on the SMI Method (Simultaneous Multisensory Instruction) has more information: http://blog.allaboutlearningpress.com/the-smi-method/

That article is part of a 5-part series on memory issues that I highly recommend reading if you have time. It completely changed how I homeschooled my kids. (The other articles in the series are linked at the bottom of that one.)

Back to reading and visual methods–most students who rely on purely visual methods will bottom out at some point at a middle to upper elementary reading level. (Think about memorizing thousands of telephone numbers visually–that’s what trying to read without understanding sounds would be like). This article on word-guessing has more info on students who rely purely on visual methods: http://blog.allaboutlearningpress.com/break-the-word-guessing-habit/

We’ve had students even with severe dyslexia (including Marie’s son) succeed with AAR and AAS. It can take a lot of work, but be encouraged that you can help your son. You may want to check out Marie’s story:

http://www.allaboutlearningpress.com/our-story
http://www.allaboutlearningpress.com/about

I hope this helps! Please let us know if you have additional questions.

Amelie

says:

Thank you for all the tips you gave. I will peruse the links given. This site has lots of helpful information. I appreciate it!

Jennifer Huffman

says:

Thanks for posting this! I have wondered about this and my son who is on level 1 is always asking me, “Is that a rule breaker.” This will help us both. Thanks!

Jennifer

says:

We live in South Georgia and I have already begun doing some of the things listed above…glad to know I am on the right track! Thank you for the additional activities and tips! My little girl is just in kindergarten, but is doing really well so far, with reading and the activities that go along with it. I’m wondering when spelling is typically taught? I thought it was first grade, but I’m wondering if I should go ahead and teach it as a separate subject now?

Robin E. at All About Learning Press

says: Customer Service

Jennifer,
We recommend starting spelling after the student has completed All About Reading 1, or the equivalent reading level. While learning to read, students will pick up the basic skills that will allow them to spell more easily. This article, The Right Time to Start, explains this further.

Renee Smith

says:

I have a student who regularly mixes up short i and short a. Can I use the same process with him?

Robin E. at All About Learning Press

says: Customer Service

Renee,
Definitely. You’ll have to come up with your own words for the practice activities, but the options outlined here are will work.

I haven’t heard of short i and short a mix ups. Is it possibly in just a few words, or a few patterns, and not across all words? I ask because we (live in Arizona) shift short e to long a in front of the letter g, such as egg becomes aig and leg becomes laig. However, bed is bed and not bade and men is men and not main. If the problem is just in a very few words, or in just a specific pattern, it may be better to focus on just those words or patterns, and not words that your student does fine with.

Let us know if you need specific help with how to cover this with your student.

Renee Smith

says:

Thank you for the response. This boy mixes i and a consistently. He is home schooled, but I have him an hour a day for reading. Both his mother and I use the All About Learning tools(she – reading for a younger brother; me – spelling). She asked me about this confusion and I told her I had already noted the same confusion. I will share this process with her and hopefully between the two of us, we can cure this!

Maryandra

says:

Thanks so much for posting this! My 7 yr old an I were just struggling with this today. She has so much trouble hearing the difference in these two short vowel sounds. I was at a loss today as to how to help her. We will definitely be using your tips and activities tomorrow and probably a few days before we move on. Thank you!

Maryandra

says:

I forgot to add that we are in the purple area – north Alabama, but I’m from South Africa so I don’t have problems with these vowels and it is hard for me not to over correct my whole family. My precious little southern girls are definitely needing more help in spelling. LOL

Robin E. at All About Learning Press

says: Customer Service

Maryandra,
Awww, but a South African accent has it’s own issues with pronunciation and spelling, such as tendency to say /ar/ when a short a is followed by s, f, or th. Each regional accent has it’s own struggles. I have learned so much about regional accents and how they relate to spelling since working for All About Learning Press. It’s fascinating.

Robin E. at All About Learning Press

says: Customer Service

Maryandra,
I love when our blog posts are just in time to help someone! You are welcome.

Rena

says:

Thank you for addressing this! We are in OK and I’ve noticed my 2nd grader is having this problem.

CabotMama

says:

My fifth grader will be so relieved to learn this issue has a name other than the one we coined back in 1st grade: Southern Accent Disorder. :) We encountered it with the word “get.” After struggling for weeks, I overemphasized the pronunciation for spelling: “g-e-e-e-t”. And then “g-e-t”. My son stared at me and said, “Mom, no one says that! It’s “g-i-i-i-t”!!!” And that was pretty much the end of the spelling lesson for the day. He was done.
We later explained he needed to learn the other pronunciations so he could be understood if and when he travelled. We have made progress … but distinguishing the two sounds remains a struggle. And it runs in the family. His three younger siblings are struggling with these two sounds. I look forward to using these strategies.

Kim

says:

Yes, unfortunately I say git for get also. I’m trying so hard to change my habit so that my children learn the word correctly.

Christine

says:

I am dealing with this right now with my second grader. Actually we ran into it last year and I thought it was an age/new speller thing. I spent my first 8 years in Florida (purple) and then the rest in Washington State (white) and now we live in Arizona (white), so I now realize that it is me and the way I pronounce my words; not her. I think the good thing is she will clarify, did you say “pIgpEn” and emphasize the I and E sounds and I say, “yes”. So she discovered a way to get around my pronunciation. I also like the idea of using the word in a sentence so she knows which vowel to use in context, which will be the way she uses the word most of the time (except with a spelling list, ha).

Robin E. at All About Learning Press

says: Customer Service

Christine,
I actually think this pin/pen merger is a bit more widespread than the purple suggests. I grew up in Northern California and my husband grew up in Southern California and Southwest Arizona. We live in Southwest Arizona, and my kids have all struggled a bit with short e and short i, especially in front of nasal consonants like m and n and in unaccented syllables.

The word dentist has been a terrible struggle for all of my kids. Is it dentest, dintist, dintest, or dentist? They have tried every way. I actually had to get into morphology with 8 year olds because of this word. (Dentist is formed from the root dent, which means teeth, such as dental and dentition. I told them that “teeth make dents.” Then the ist ending means “one who does something”, like artist, chemist, and racist.)

Anyway, all that to say it’s not necessarily you. Plus, out West here we are famous for an entirely different merger, the cot/caught merger. For most of us Westerners, the short o sound and the aw and au sounds are the same.

Katie

says:

Yes! We live in south Georgia and have struggled with this.

Jenbulpitt

says:

I grew up in Texas but we live in Maryland and my first grader has already run into this issue. I suspect it is because of the way I speak to her. We are taking time to pronounce as we would spell but I imagine it will take a bit of time before she can easily distinguish the difference.

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