"When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking - it says its name."
It means in a word like bean, the e is pronounced (with the long sound like the name of the letter E) and the a is silent. Here are some more examples:
And here is a video about it for kids. Beautifully made, cute and convincing ...
... I was going to write about this 'rule' in my book (Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners). First thing that happened was that I was a bit stuck for examples. Then I got suspicious and decided to check it out. I wrote all the possible vowel digraphs (two written vowels together that make one sound), such as ae, ai, ao, au, ea, ei, etc and I put them into a concordancer at http://www.lextutor.ca/concordancers/concord_e.html
And what did I find? I found this rule was just not true. It only works for a few digraphs and then not always. Look, these ones generally do work:
oa - coat, load, approach, goal, etc (most words with oa make the o sound and the a is silent, except if it's followed by an r: board, coarse)
ai - rain, paint, rail, failure, etc (this one is pretty good too but some common words don't follow the rule: said, pair, etc)
ea - sea, beans, easy, please, beach, etc (this one sometimes behaves according to the rule but look at all these exceptions (and there are lots more) : leather, already, early, appear, break, bread, etc)
Some pairs have a few examples
ui - juice, fruit, suit (but not liquid, build, guide, biscuit and many more
ei - ceiling, receive but not height, eight,
oe - toe, woe, goes, potatoes but not in shoes, does, poem, foetid or canoe
ue - blue, true but not in guest, league, queen, affluence and any more.
And the others really do not follow this rule at all. At best there are two or three words that follow the rule for these combinations, but generally none,
ae, ao, au, eo, eu, ia, ie, io, iu, ou, ua, uo.
Now those of you who follow my work know that I don't give a fig for 'rules' in spellings. We can only look at patterns, or precedents, and make guesses. But it does annoy me to think that children are taught 'rules' like this when they're just not true.
Do you agree? Are you a teacher who has taught this 'rule'? Can you justify it? Do you know any other 'rules' that are not true? Is a 'rule' that's partly right better than no rule at all?