The spelling system of English is complicated, and when it comes to the vowel system, it can even sometimes seem like there are no patterns. Even though it is complex, there are some basic patterns that you can learn, to help you figure out how to pronounce new words when you see them.
The most basic key to the vowel system, is to know that each vowel letter uses three or four sounds. So the first step to understanding the vowels, is to learn the basic sounds of each.
The basic sounds for the English letter “A” are Long-A, Short-a-1, and Short-a-2.
The sound of Long-A is the same as the name of the letter “A” when you say the alphabet. Some common words with this sound are: make / name / say / came / place / change / state / day / later / able / became / face / paper / waves / space.
The sound of Short-a-1 is tricky for some students. Short-a-1 is pronounced in the front lower part of the mouth, so the mouth needs to be open enough, and it is very important to relax the tongue. Here are some frequently used words with Short-a-1: answer / add / began / plant / last / back / after / man / ask / land / family / class / stand / happen / map.
The second Short-a sound is a sound that is also used for Short-o. This sound is what many students think of as a normal “A” sound, and is used for the word “mama”. This vowel is in the center of the mouth (not front, not back) and it is low down, so the mouth needs to be open enough, and the tongue is relaxed. Words with this sound are: almost / talk / also / start / want / car / fall / small / watch / far / father / hard / water / part / saw / dark.
Besides the basic sounds, any vowel letter can use the schwa sound. This happens in weak (unstressed) syllables. Here are some words in which the “A” is in the unstressed syllable: about / around / along / among / across / ago / another / surface / finally / machine / America. There are also some very frequently used words, which are usually unstressed in sentences, and also use the schwa sound: was / a / what.
So, when you see the letter “A” in a word, it will almost always be one of the four sounds above. It is very rare to find some other vowel sound used. There are few words with an “A” that do not use one of those sounds, such as: said / says / any / many. (Words such as “warm” and “quart” are explained in The Power of R.)