Catchy rhymes can be a fun and easy way to remember some of those pesky phonics rules. Have you heard 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. The PBS children’s program Between the Lions even devoted an entire song to the “two vowels go walking” rule.
The song illustrates the concept with a catchy tune and animated letters that walk together (hand in hand, no less!) on a road. But their conversation is one-sided, since the first vowel is the only one that is allowed to “do the talking.”
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.
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 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!
Were you ever taught that “when two vowels go walking, the first does the talking?”