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When Two Vowels Go Walking

Catchy rhymes can be a fun and easy way to remember some of those pesky phonics rules. Have you heard of this one?

When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.

It’s a cute rhyme that’s easily remembered, and most teachers simply take it for granted that it is true, especially if their phonics program includes the rule as fact. And for the sake of convenience, it would be wonderful if this rule were true—teaching reading and spelling would be much simpler. But this “rule” is actually false 60% of the time.


When Two Vowels Go Walking . . . Not!

Red 'myth' stamp

To test the rule, I took the 1,000 most common words and analyzed them by applying the rule to each one. I discovered that, contrary to the rule’s claim, only 43% of the words actually followed the rule, and a stunning 57% of the words did not! When I analyzed the top 2,000 words, the percentage shifted even further—only 36% of the words followed the rule, and 64% did not. So much for this oft-repeated phrase!

This is not to say that the rule is entirely invalid. There are many cases in which two vowels “go walking,” including ai, au, ea, ee, ei, ie, oa, eo, oi, oo, ou, and ui. And when a pair of vowels appears in a word, it is often the first vowel that “does that talking,” as represented in words like green, sea, hair, coat, clean, rain, and peach.

However—and this is the important part—these same vowel teams also exist in many words that don’t follow the “when two vowels go walking” rule, including good, about, earth, bear, noise, author, and friend.

Instead of relying on the incorrect guidance of this (fake) rule, teach your students the sounds of the letter combinations (called phonograms). Your student will learn important and fundamental concepts, such as ai says /ā/, au says /aw/, oa says /ō/, and oi says /oy/. This knowledge will give your students some real tools to work with—and there will be nothing to unlearn later!

Vowels A and I walking on a bridge

Were you ever taught that “when two vowels go walking, the first does the talking?”


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Joan Amsler

says:

I was taught when you have 2 vowels in a short word the first vowel says it’s name and the second one sleeps
Make ,take, wake

Robin

says: Customer Service

Interesting, Joan. The words make, take, and wake are all silent e words. We have a great blog post on Silent E: Teaching Kids the Whole Truth that you may enjoy.

Mona

says:

Thank you for sharing this. It will be a great help for my RTI group.

Crystal

says:

I teach phonics rules while also pointing out at the same time there are outliers. I like the rule “when two vowels go walking” because it’s easy to remember. I teach it with ai, oa, ea, ay, ow, igh, and ue. At the same time I am teaching it, I made a big deal of adding the words “usually, but not always” to the end of the rhyme. I do that with ALL phonics rules I teach because all of them have exceptions. I give several examples of those exceptions. I explain why english has so many exceptions (because english comes from so many other languages that all have different rules). Then I teach dipthong vowels (oi, au, ou, etc) separately. I explain that those vowels are similar to digraphs, where instead of saying only one sound, or saying the sounds together, the sound changes altogether. It seems to work very well. My kids will be the first to say, “but not always” whenever they hear the rule.

I also teach them what to do when they get to a word where they try “the first one does the talking” and it doesn’t work. Like with the word “earth”. If it’s a word we’ve never studied, they could try other vowel sounds to see if it makes sense. Or try the short vowel and see if that makes sense. Usually they can check with me to be sure. We often keep track of the words that don’t follow the rule on the wall so we can pay special attention to them.

Raymond Abobo

says:

Thanks again

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you for explaining your approach to this rule, Crystal.

Jeannie

says:

Yep! And I continued to teach that rule after I began my teaching career until I learned all about Orton-Gillingham and other reading methods. Thank you for pointing this out. I love your articles and your knowledge is outstanding and practical. I am a retired special education teacher and just recently starting working with a severly dyslexic student. I am reteaching myself all kinds of new things to help her using your articles. Your All About Reading program is really great! Just started using that, too!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m so pleased to hear that All About Reading and the articles here are helpful for you, Jeannie! Thank you.

Christine S

says:

Even the phonograms don’t always follow the rules: “ai” does not always have the long a sound, as in the word “said” yet it does in the word “afraid”. So many rules and so many rule breakers. That is the beauty of the English language. And the frustration. It pulls from so many different languages and they all have their own little unique qualities that have to be applied to our English version. And then we have to take into account all the colloquialisms. It’s a wonder any of us learn it. 😂

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

English sure is interesting, Christin!

However, the AI phonogram is actually very reliable. Said and again are pretty much the only words that use this phonogram without the long A sound. Learning to read AI with a long sound allows children to easily decode hundreds of words, and then they only need to be taught these two separately (there might be one or two more exceptions that I am forgetting, but I don’t think so). And even with said and again, all the other phonograms in these words say what we expect, so they are still partially decodable. Learning phonograms, even though there are words with exceptions, is far easier for students than just trying to memorize all words.

But you are correct English being influenced by so many languages, regional colloquialisms, so on. It can be frustrating, but it has a lot of positives too! For example, English is very flexible, adapting quickly and easily to new situations and media (think the company name Google becoming a verb, to google!).

Corinne G. Johnson

says:

Very helpful

Suzette Spears

says:

I would not say that the rule is “fake”. It does apply in many words. What I teach my children is that there is no rule that applies to all words all the time, that is just how the English language works. The two vowels rule is one of several choices I teach my students to use when decoding or encoding words. The rules are there to help the students with the language, children have to learn to allow their brains the flexibility to understand learning to read is a scientific process and when decoding a word, when the first strategy does not work, change the variable, and try to say the word again.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Suzette,
Many rules in English hold true 95% of the time or greater, and All About Reading and All About Spelling chooses to teach only those highly reliable rules. Learning phonograms makes this “two vowels” rule unnecessary anyway.

Noella Tesheca Robinson

says:

Please send me more tips on Spelling, Phonics and Grammar notes this would help with 5th Grader.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Noella,
Please sign up for our email newsletter for weekly tips on reading and spelling.

Also, you will find lots and lots of information on reading here and lots of articles and tips for spelling here. Note, All About Learning Press does not cover grammar except as it relates to reading and spelling.

If you have specific concerns or questions, I would be happy to help.

clara

says:

Thank you ma’am

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Clara.

Poorvi

says:

Nice information

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Poorvi!

Mary Oelschlager

says:

Thank you! Thank you for taking the time to research this. I’ve been tripping over this rule for years when teaching young students because there are so many exceptions!
I absolutely agree, teaching phonogram “chunks” is the way to go.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Mary. I’m glad this will be helpful for you and your students!

Amanda

says:

Very helpful! Thank you

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Amanda! Glad it was helpful!

Frolline

says:

Thank you . I seen this song on a cartoon and it confused me when I seen two vowels walking and they pronounced it wrong. So I decided to check out the song only to see that I was correct.thank you this information was very helpful.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this was helpful for you, Frolline! You’re welcome.

Anne Rogers

says:

I just learned this in a workshop I took through ReallyGreatReading. I was taught this…but wow! the percentages make perfect sense when I think of how often I hear or say…”What about this word?” (Just another rule breaker!!) Too many rule breakers….I haven’t often recited this jingle to my students because of the constant explanation, but it’s 100% dumped now!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

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

Barbara

says:

Interesting info!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Barbara.

Lisa

says:

I have volunteered to be a reading tutor for an adult. Having great tips on reading and spelling would be so appreciated and useful, I think.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Lisa,
If you have specific questions or need anything, we’re happy to help! Just ask.

Brett Hickman

says:

when playing the letter combos from the graph, the speaker will say o, two letters o, what does he mean by saying two letters?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Great question, Brett.

The phonogram OA and the phonogram OE both have just one sound, the long O /ō/ sound. Our programs teach children to say OA says “/ō/ – two letter /ō/ that we may not use at the end of English words” and OE says “/ō/ – two letter /ō/ that we may use at the end of English words”. This distinguishes between the two phonograms that have the same sound.

In short, the “two letter /ō/” part is not part of the sounds, but part of how the phonogram is written.

Jesse Rebekah Robinson

says:

Thank you for sharing.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Jesse.

Sarah C

says:

So good! I have 4 kids, 3 went to public school for kindergarten/1st grade. Only 1 of them was taught phonograms in school. He has such a better sense of words than my older two, it’s crazy words he can figure out. When we decided to homeschool my youngest was starting kindergarten and I knew I had to find the same approach. Now we’re finishing up AAR3 and I can’t believe how simple and fun and successful it’s been!!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you for sharing your observations on what a difference phonogram knowledge can make to children, Sarah! I’m pleased to hear your youngest is doing so well with All About Reading!

Anita

says:

Thank you this is Nice

Raquel Cook

says:

I have a kindergarten boy who has a short attention span but he loves technology! Sometimes he likes the cute rhyming songs and sometimes he’s “too big” for those. Any suggestions?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Raquel,
We don’t really have rhymes for reading and spelling rules, but we do have some cute posters! Check them out and see if your boy will like them. Spelling Rules Posters.

Robian Rose

says:

This is so good. Another reason to leave public school

Susan

says:

Very helpful!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Susan!

Dawn

says:

Great tips!

Laura

says:

This!!! So true! No wonder we still get confused on spelling certain words and have to think of special songs or rhymes we came up with to remember the correct spelling of particular words.

Nikki

says:

Or I before e, except after c. Quite a few words that one doesn’t apply to, either (weight for example).

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Nikki,
Yes, this rule as it is usually taught is not reliable. However, All About Spelling limits the rule to only the sound of long E. “When the sound is /ē/, it is I before E except after C.” When you exclude all other sounds (long A, short E, etc.), the rule is very reliable with only 10 common exceptions (and either is one of them). AAS teaches these exceptions in two silly sentences that make them easy to remember.

Brenda Franklin

says:

Why do you compare receive with either and weigh? these words do not have the necessary C for the rule to work.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Brenda,
The way All About Spelling teaches the I-Before-E rule is “When the sound is /ē/, it’s I before E except after C.” Since weigh does not contain the long E /ē/ sound, the rule doesn’t apply. Rather, the EIGH phonogram, which always says long A /ā/ is used in words like neighbor and weigh.

After teaching the long E /ē/ rule, All About Spelling teaches the ten common exceptions with two silly sentences to make them easy to remember. Either is one of those exceptions taught.

Laura

says:

This is a good thread.
The full rhyme is
“I before e, except after c
or when sounded as a
as in neighbor
or
weigh.”

My student love to show off that they can spell ceiling, and neighbor and weigh.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Laura.

However, All About Spelling teaches this rule differently to minimize the number of exceptions. In All About Spelling, the rule applies only to the sound of long E and the phonograms EI and IE, so AAS teaches the rule as, “When the sound is /ē/, it is I before E except after C.”

Words like neighbor and weigh use the phonogram EIGH, which only says the long A /ā/ sound. There is no phonogram IEGH, so there is no confusion with the EIGH phonogram.

Melanie Nygaard

says:

I have heard both “either” and “neither” pronounced by some with a long i sound, so that’s how I’m teaching my kids to “pronounce for spelling.” Then they aren’t exceptions.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Interesting idea, Melanie! Thank you for sharing it.

Pamela

says:

Thank you!

Holli W.

says:

Oh yes, I remember learning this rhyme as a student! This makes so much more sense! Thank you for your helpful teaching tips!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Holli! I’m glad this makes more sense to you.

YANET

says:

I had noticed that already. Thanks for clarifying it! Great advise!

Lehrer

says:

“Advice” is correct here. “Advise” is pronounced “advize” and is a verb.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Yanet.

Jana Waiser

says:

Personal names with certain nationalities may pronounce differently. Our name is from German decent, Waiser, but we pronounce the second vowel, “i” as with my maiden name. I had the “ie” after the first consonant and we pronounced the “e”. I’ve been told it’s a German thing.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Interesting, Jana. Yes, we have to remember that words from other languages will follow other rules. (I have been told that it is a fairly reliable rule in German that when there are two vowels together the first is silent and the second is long.)

But names! Name can break every rule and pattern. Not only do people happily come up with new and unique spellings for the names of their children, but traditional spellings are often odd as well. Why does Thomas have an H? Shouldn’t Robin have a double B to protect that short O? Why does Anne have a silent e (some of the time)? Sigh.