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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 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.

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 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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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.

barbara Maron

says:

Is there a rule for when you read ea as in beat and when you read ea as in bread?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Barbara,
No, there is no rule for when to read a word with the EA phonogram with the long E sound or with the short E sound or with the long A sound (as in great). However, many children find it helpful to know that the long E sound is the most common sound for EA and that the long A sound is pretty rare (only in a handful of words, but some are common words such as great, break, steak).

So students know to try the long E sound first. If that doesn’t make a recognizable word, then try the short E sound. Many find it helpful to learn the long A sound words separately, as there are so few.

One of the most helpful things for students is to teach each of the sounds of this phonogram (and other phonograms that have multiple sounds) separately with lots of time before each new one is introduced. In All About Reading, students are taught all the sounds of EA in level 3, but they are taught in separate lessons with at least ten lessons between. The long E sound is taught in lesson 27, the short E sound in lesson 41, and the long A sound in lesson 51. This way students can become very comfortable with one sound of the phonogram before they start using the next sound.

Does this help? It would be great if there was a rule for when to use each sound. I’m sorry there is not.

Patty Riemer

says:

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

Pamela Bradley

says:

That is a good approach. I like to teach the “rules” as generalizations and not hard and fast rules. I then teach other sounds that do not.

Andrei Gonzales Iturri

says:

This rule can be applied only fairly enough in 91% 71% 69% 96% 69% the rest are not worth enough to be cited.

William Short

says:

this was helpful

Shawn B Dallas

says:

If you teach this catchy little song (kids love it and can remember it easily) and only apply it to oa / ai / ea / ee / and (with a very close approximation of the sound ) ui as well, it works for most words. I wonder what the percentage of words that follow this rule would be for this subset? The ones that don’t “follow the rule” are often categorized as sight words.

I encourage people not to throw the baby out with the bath water!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Shawn,
Well, this “rule” would apply very well to OA, AI, and EE. It doesn’t apply to EA all that way, as EA has three sounds. Long E, Long A (great and break) and short E (health and dead). Long E is it’s most common sound, but there would still be over 160 words that don’t use the long E sound and would have to be learned as sight words.

And OA, AI, EE, and UI all have a single sound. It is simpler for most children to learn those sounds by directly connecting the phonogram to the sound, instead of having to remember which three or four vowel teams the rhyme applies to.

All About Reading and All About Spelling teaches many rules, but we do focus on ones that are reliable 95% or the time or more so students have very few sight words or exceptions to learn. This “rule” just doesn’t fit our criteria for reliability.

Mary Ann Barnett

says:

I’m so happy to hear this. My 7 year old granddaughter in First grade could never quite understand this. She even pointed out words to me that didn’t make sense. I’m excited about teaching her the All About Reading method.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Mary Ann,
It sounds like your granddaughter is a very observant reader!

Devie

says:

How is “via” pronounced? Or “either”?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Devie,
Via is pronounced veye-uh or vee-uh. Either can be pronounced as ee-ther or eye-ther. Both are correct and a matter of personal preference, although regional accents may prefer one or the other.

Natasha Peak

says:

What about last name Buelt? My family pronounces it Built but that seems wrong.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Natasha,
Names are so difficult! Names, whether they be names for people or names of places, don’t have to follow rules or be predictable. History and language of origin play a huge part in name pronunciation. Look at the name Sean and how it is pronounced!

So, how your family pronounces Buelt is correct for your family.

Esther

says:

Wow, that is impressive data. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I also liked your idea of teaching phonograms instead Of that catchy phrase, but what about phonograms with more than one sound like ea, oo, etc they are usually theVowel teams that are tricky

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Esther,
Yes, phonograms with multiple sounds are tricky. All About Reading and All About Spelling teaches all the sounds of phonograms, but they ask students to only work with one sound for a long while before introducing words with the next sound. This helps to make them a lot less tricky as students can master one of the sounds before having to worry about the next one.

It’s not just the vowel teams, however. The letters O and Y each have four sounds! But AAR’s and AAS’s approach helps to minimize or even eliminate confusion over the multiple sounds of these letters and the many other phonograms.

Elizabeth Lambert

says:

Very well stated.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Elizabeth!

MA KAROLIA

says:

I gave up on english spelling when it came to vowels.
I going to try the sound of the letter combination vowels (phonograms)
GREAT HELP
Do appreciate

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this was helpful for you. Please let me know if you have any questions or need more information.

Mai Tanya

says:

Thanks so much for the lesson,l will definitely keep this in mind,using the phonograms is much easier for the kids to master.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Mai. Phonograms are the way to go. 😊

NABBUMBA STELLA AGNES

says:

I happen to be among the lucky few who didn’t buy the “walking rule”. It sounded very ridiculous and so my students enjoy learning the phonograms by their sounds.
Thank you.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Your students are so fortunate, Stella! 😊

Ria B. Gee

says:

No. The only rule I was ever taught was; “I before E, except after C – usually!”
That’s it. I have had no problem with demonstrating the “rules”. So, maybe the problem is concentrating on teaching too many rules, rather than letting kids just use their common sense.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Ria,
You do have a point about too many rules. It’s for that sort of reason that All About Reading and All About Spelling focus only on the rules that are reliable 95% of the time or more. Rules are helpful when they are reliable, but there are other Spelling Strategies as well.

Theresa Charles

says:

I find this rules absolutely great.
Thank you for the enlightenment

J. Waters

says:

Thanks, I learned something new today, for over 50 years I had it wrong.

Sandra Graham

says:

WOW! Thank you!

Luis Villalobos

says:

Excellent and excellency just beautifully done . Do some more in strategies in comprehension reading. Thank You so much.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Luis,
Were you asking for information on reading comprehension? We have a blog post about that, How to Teach Reading Comprehension. Or is there something else you need?

Joanna Schoff

says:

Interesting. Can you share the 1000 and 2000 most common words?
Im interested to see it.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Joanna,
If you do a search for the “2000 most common words in English” you will find many lists. Some are the most common spoken words, some are the most common written words, some list the words in order of frequency, some list them alphabetically, and so on.

One such list used in education today is the Dolch Word List, which is the 220 most common words in children’s books compiled in the 1930s. Here is a download of the Dolch Word List.

Sonika

says:

Helpful

JoEtta Jarecke

says:

awesome video

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