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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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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!

Betsy

says:

Great resource …

Shannon

says:

We are from Texas & also have family in Mississippi. We struggle to hear the differences for spelling.

Linda

says:

North Carolina – definitely the blue area. I am a Special Education teacher and it is difficult here to help students distinguish between short vowels /i/ and /e/. Thanks for these support materials.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You are welcome, Linda. Thank you for the work you do helping students. Let me know if you have any questions or need other help.

Tara

says:

Thank you for the materials and detailed information. I am from the blue area (Alabama) and needed a more “structured” way to teach my students.

Success sokari

says:

You’ve made made my day ,thanks.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome! Let me know if you have any questions or need anything.

Tammy

says:

This article explains so much to me. I am from NC and I always wondered why it was never taught that the e makes a short i sound when followed by an m or an n. I didn’t realize that pin and pen were ever pronounced differently from one another! They have always been pronounced exactly the same here! And also that when a is followed by m or n (example: pan) it is pronounced as a short e sound here also! I basically had told my son that m’s and n’s change their sounds! Now I see this is a regional thing!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Tammy,
It is a regional thing, but it’s not wrong to teach your child in a way that reflects his regional accent. It makes learning more personal and more successful. I do it with short o and aw/au as my children and I are affected by an accent that pronounces these sounds the same.

Keep up the great work, but let me know if you have any questions about this or other sounds.

Karen

says:

Yep. My daughter struggles significantly with differentiating short i and e and we are in the south eastern USA.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Aw, yes. I and E can be so tricky! Hopefully the tips and ideas in this blog post will help your daughter, Karen, but if you need further help let me know. Somehow almost everyone in the southeastern US master short I and E, but it does take time for some of them.

Annamari

says:

Great learning, love all the resources help this granny a lot because English is not our home language.
Enjoy your day

Stacey

says:

I didn’t really think this was an issue before reading this but now it makes sense why my son was mixing up some words. Fascinating! Thank you!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Stacey,
I hope the tips here can help your son master these sorts of words. Let me know how it goes or if you have further questions or need more help.

Nancy

says:

This fascinates me…takes me back to linguistics discussions in my college years.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Nancy,
I find regional accents fascinating too! 😊

Anne Perry

says:

I would love to introduce a spelling book to my 3rd grade son.

Stephanie

says:

Wow!! My little 5 year old daughter is smart as a whip! She turned 5 on May 7th but is on a 1st grade level and this would benefit her greatly as she’s doing such a good job learning to spell and read and yet this is one of our main struggles teaching her the difference between long and short

Marguerite Stuart

says:

Love your resources

Genie Coss

says:

So, I just discovered your website. I’m so excited to go through the information and see what I can use to support my students.

Brandy Sosa

says:

Can’t wait to get started! I’ve heard so many wonderful things about the program!

Melissa

says:

This is very helpful! Thank you!

Kendra

says:

Awesome resources! Thank you!!

Krista

says:

Thank you for helping me see and hear words differently. I’m trying to help my 5th grader with her spelling.

Amanda W.

says:

This blog is amazing. I’m so glad I have found it

Julie

says:

My husband and his sister both say “cran” instead of “cray-on.” I wonder if that’s a regional pronunciation too.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Julie,
I say “crayon” just like “crown”, with a clear /ow/ vowel sound. i didn’t know that was wrong until I was an adult, so I sympathize with your husband and sister-in-law. Here is a great map to show the difference in pronunciation of the word in the USA (the red shows the two syllable “cray-on” pronunciation). It is definitely a regional thing!

Lindsey Thomas

says:

We definitely live in the area where it is hard to hear the difference for “pin” and “pen.” Thanks for the tips!

Great tips, I have a 5 and 6 year old so very handy

Amy

says:

great information to help my daughter

Alta R Waldner

says:

Very helpful tips!

Ann

says:

Very helpful!

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