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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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Barbara A Allard

says:

my grandmother taught this to me as a way to pronounce the word ,when reading only not fro spelling

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Barbara,
Yes, this rule is commonly taught for reading, but it isn’t any more reliable for reading than for spelling. Take the OU phonogram, for example. If a child tries to apply this rule for reading, he won’t be able to read words like pout and soup. The /ow/ sound of OU (as in pout) is its most common sound.

Ajae

says:

I was taught 2 vowels together the first one does the talking. How would you pronounce AJAE?
To me it is pronounced A J

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Ajae,
Names don’t have to follow rules. If you want your name to say “A J”, then that is what “Ajae” says. I suspect almost all people would read “Ajae” as “A J” as well, however.

There are some vowel pairs that do follow this “two vowels go walking the first does the talking” rule. It’s just that the rule is not true more often than it is true.

Juyoung Yun

says:

Thank you for sharing this!!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Juyoung!

Maria Peters Bodette

says:

Thank you, I always knew that Was always confusing to many students, because we have so many words that don’t follow the rule. Thank you for sharing this!!!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Maria!

Vava

says:

Thank you

Angela

says:

This rule is actually taught with a cute little video in the online curriculum we had been using. It is surprising to me that it doesn’t work most of the time!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Angela,
Yes. The rule is so handy and easy to remember that it would be wonderful if it were reliable. But it is best to not teach it to children, as it causes such confusion when it doesn’t work so much of the time.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Karen.

You are correct that good, about, noise, and author are all phonetically regular. We simply use them as examples to show how unreliable the “two vowels go walking” rule is. As the blog post explains, if you teach children phonograms (as you showed in your comment), children do not have to use an unreliable rule but can rather use the very reliable phonogram sounds to read the words.

Our programs do not attempt to teach the differences between vowel digraphs and vowel diphthongs to young readers. Knowing the difference requires someone to either already know the sounds that a vowel team makes or otherwise memorize which vowel teams are digraphs and which are diphthongs. It is much less confusing to those just learning to read to know that each vowel team has a sound or sounds it can make and learn those sounds. That way, they don’t have to memorize which vowel teams are digraphs and which are diphthongs, and that they should use this rule for digraphs but not use it for diphthongs. Learning the sounds for each vowel team saves steps and confusion and allows students to get right into reading the words.

Cugel

says:

It remains a useful strategy when used with a specific vowel digraph to which it does apply. The difficulty arises when it is taught as a blanket rule. The problem is in the teaching not the rhyme.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Yes, Cugel, that is true. However, from a small child that is learning to read, knowing which pairs of vowels do work with this rule and which pairs of vowels do not work is more difficult than simply learning what sound or sounds each pair makes. If I know that OA says /ō/ and OI says /oi/, I don’t need to know which of the two this rule applies to and which it does not.

Mary

says:

great Examples, very useful. Mary

Alastair Green

says:

What about oa in words such as oar, roar, etc.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Yes, the two vowels go walking so-called rule does work for these words, Alastair.

As mentioned in this article, the two vowels go walking “rule” is false approximately 60% of the time, but that means it does work approximately 40% of the time. The phonogram OA is an example of when this rule does work. However, it doesn’t work at all for OI and OY and only works some of the time (not even most of the time) for OO, OU, OUGH, and OW (and those are just the vowel team phonograms that start with O).

Julie

says:

Very interesting, thank you..

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Julie.

Heather Lambourne

says:

For the exact reason you have stated, is why I never teach this rule.
g r ea t. ea= ‘a-e’. (as in table).
b e c au se. au= ‘o’. (as in cot).
f r ui t. ui= ‘oo’. (as in. boot)

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Yes, great examples, Heather. Thank you!

Sheelagh

says:

Was never taught that song – was only taught the sounds of each as u suggested

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Great to hear, Sheelagh! Sadly, too many of us were taught this false rule.

Lee R. Brawley

says:

Marie Rippel,
Thank You, I learned more in five minutes today or recalled more spelling rules from the information then in several years.
I was never a great speller and had a secretary for most of the forty-five years of my business life, so you are teaching more than a child.
I did marring my secretary which helped to have a proofreader for numerous reports.
Your commitment to accuracy, speaks highly to your commitment to the facts. My faith in your spelling rules shot-up immediately.
I have read the Dictionary through twice, but I still stumble with spelling, I did spell ( secratary and twise) then corrected them after review.
Thank You for your commitment to improve the communication of the English Language.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Lee.

Karen

says:

My grandson will love this. He loves to catch me in a mistake. My favorite saying is “most of the time” now I will have to say “some of the time”.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Allowing children to catch our mistakes is actually a great learning method! We use it a lot in our Pre-reading level, but it can be helpful at any level for any subject. I have used it with high school science classes.

Wendy dawson

says:

I get confused with vowels together like likeable ör likenle, should the 2 vowels be together

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Wendy,
The word likable is a base word and a suffix, so the rules for adding suffixes apply.

The base word is like. It has a silent E at the end, so we apply the Drop the E Rule for adding suffixes. It states that we drop (remove) the silent E before adding a vowel suffix (that is a suffix that begins with a vowel). We do not drop the E when adding a consonant suffix (a suffix that begins with a consonant). So, since the suffix -able is a vowel suffix, we drop the E and the word is spelled likable. But if we wanted to add the suffix -ly, a consonant suffix, we keep the E and it is likely.

Check out our How to Teach Suffixes blog post for more spelling rules for adding suffixes.

Nancy

says:

I will never teach this again! Thank you for doing this research.

Masilo

says:

Great work…these materials are really useful

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Glad to hear you found it helpful, Masilo!

Robert West

says:

Is it little wonder that so many children graduate from high school without a firm command of the English language?

M. Angie

says:

Thanks for sharing material, i´ts great!!!!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome!

mrs. hawley

says:

i thot it was good

Morina Oktaviani

says:

Thank you very much
Your explanation really help us.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Glad to hear it, Morina!

Sam Savage

says:

[I tried replying directly to a comment, but I can’t get the reply function to work (on android mobile) The comment I’m replying to is pasted below.]

Mrs. Riemer, there IS a rule in your case and the rule is of great help in many situations. Unfortunately, it’s only of use to people familiar with German. Unlike English, there is a hard and fast rule regarding vowel pronunciation for German words. Many proper nouns and German words have been adopted by English and the rule survives, as well, for any German word used in English.

When you see a German word that has two vowels next to each other, the second vowel is always the one that is pronounced. This is why Riemer is pronounced ‘Reemer:’ because it is a German/Germanic name.

Replying to:
Patty Riemer
September 6, 2020 at 8:08 am
Riemer is my last name.
Our family says Remer, not Rimer.
Most often we are called Rimer?
Thanks for breaking the ‘rules’ down.
Sincerely Mrs. P. Riemer

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Sam! This is interesting and helpful.

Heather

says:

Hi! The title “Debunking the rule” definitely caught my attention! However, I can’t agree. Yes, your program is able to teach readers without it, but it doesn’t mean that the rule is untrue. This rule and the video as well as many other sayings have their place; the problem is that people try to attach them to things that don’t apply. It’s easy enough to understand for little ones; those teaching must make sure that only words that follow the rule are presented until they get going. “Dream” follows the rule but steak and others do not; it’s up to the educator to not confuse kids. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough books that build like this. So many use endless lists of words to memorize instead of sounding out in progressive order! But…to each his own. I’m glad you’ve been able to help many parents/educators with your system!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Heather. Still, it can be very confusing for many students to learn a rule that seems very reliable because careful teaching only exposes them to words that follow the rule only to later find out that the rule doesn’t work more often than it does.

How is a young reader to know when the rule does work (like dream) and when it does not (like steak)? Without having help from a better reader, the student will be unable to read steak correctly. Rather, if the student learned that the EA phonogram can say long E, long A, or short E, then the student can try long E, find it doesn’t make a recognizable word, and then try the next sound long A. The student would not need external help to read the word because he or she knew all the sounds EA can produce.

Averil

says:

I do teach the phonograms…. But have been known to quote that rhyme too????

Kim

says:

Of course! I learned to read with Dick and Jane and reading my way through the SRA card colors.

kylie

says:

thank you

LAW, Bingo

says:

Quick & good hints! thanks

Hailey Mayne

says:

Why are the vowels that are sitting together making their own individual sounds instead of working as a team?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Hailey,
Most of the time when there are two vowels together in a word, they do work as a team and say one sound. For example, the OU vowel team in clout and the EA vowel team in bread. Occasionally, however, there will be two vowels together but each will be in a separate syllable and each will have their own sound. For example, the words idea and radio.

Does this answer your question? Please let me know if you need more information.