When two vowels go walking - Is it the truth we're talking?

There's an English spelling rule that native-speaker children are taught:

"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 ...


BUT ...

... 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?


  1. I find this "rule" very interesting because it shows how British kids were/are taught their own language, and, what is most interesting with phonetics, how the written words correspond to specific sounds.
    The IPA phonetic chart distinguishes the vowels froms the diphthongs http://www.stuff.co.uk/calcul_nd.htm
    The "float" in the chart sound has two different sounds in it, so to a foreign ear, the"a" is not silent. I understand the "rule" was meant for native speaking children, so their perception of written/spoken sounds and the connection between them must be totally different. And it must be the same with different nationalities : what the Spanish and French people view as a"sound" when reading it can be worlds apart.

    Alice M

  2. Hi Alice,
    Thanks for your comment. Yes, that's interesting to see the difference in perception of the vowel sound for different nationalities. And it's one of the reasons that I don't think we should use phonics to teach non-native speakers to spell in English. Their pronunciation is usually different. It becomes a bit of a chicken and egg situation - which do you teach first, standard pronunciation or spelling?

  3. The adult learners I support demand to know "the rules" - sometimes with some heat. I always steal the line from the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie: "they're not so much rules as guidelines."

    I understand the temptation to use "rules" as ways of organizing information for beginners.

    For example, I often help adults with low numeracy skills translate things from English to arithmetic (which has it's own grammar). In the course of doing so, I might help them organize a subtraction problem by reminding them that they "can't take a 12 from a 5."

    Of course, this is nonsense - and later I will prove it by introducing them to negative numbers. (At that point, many will struggle with the habit of always taking the smaller number from the larger, no matter what the question asks.)

    Now... math is a good deal more straightforward than English. Yet, even there our "rules" can fail us.

    What to do?

    No idea - LOL.

  4. Hi Jo

    You asked for spelling rules that aren't. Here's a common one "i before e, except after c." In the book Wordplay - A Curious Dictionary of Language Oddities it lists examples of where this not true. Words spelled with e before i, such as albeit; weird; neither; and not forgetting jangadeiro, plus words spelled with i before e after c, such as ancient; deficient; proficient; glacier; hacienda; and financier.


  5. Wendell, I always think there are one or two real rules in English: 'q' is always followed by 'u' (in English words) and you can't have more than two of the same letters in a row without an apostrophe (boss's). Also prefixes are added to the whole word (but there are arguments that can be made against this). I always talk about 'patterns' or 'precedents', so I say to my learners "Look at all these words, can you see a pattern that most of them follow? If you don't know any different and there's no dictionary around, try following that pattern). It gives me a let-out if they find an exception, but helps them see that it's not all chaos!

    I like the maths analogy. I guess the maths is regular - it's the way we formulate the rules that isn't watertight.

    Tim, yes, 'i' before 'e' is a classic rubbish 'rule'. I have a posting on this at http://thespellingblog.blogspot.com/2009/06/i-before-e-trouble-with-rules.html .

    As far as I know though I'm the first to publicly denounce the 'two vowels go walking' rule as a fake ;-)

    1. What about vacuum and quaalude?

  6. For what it's worth, I have never seen or heard this rule in the U.S.

    1. They say it all the time in schools I have worked in in Massachusetts. And then we have to unteach it.

  7. Good! (John)

    But I don't think I've dreamt it because there is the PBS video (above) and I've seen quite a lot of references to it in primary phonics.

  8. There are very few rules for English spelling that are true more than 50% of the time. However, you can use 4 diacritics to reduce the ambiguity in the spelling of about 85% of the words in the dictionary. Of course, this is basically what is done in most dictionaries.

    beak break breakfast
    BÉaK BReÁK BREaKFàST silent markers in lower case
    be_k bra_k brekf&st ASCII &=schwa or dim. à
    bék brák brekføst ANSI (Webster Latin I)

    beak and breakfast seem to follow the 2 vowels go walking rule but the first is a long an the second is short.

    break rimes with brake /'breIk/
    The 2nd vowel does th talking in this word.

    The notation needs more than just plain text to mark the silent letters. With rich text the silent letters can be grayed out, struck thru, or displayed in a lightface fine line.

    Thè nótá$òn nééds môr than plá.n text tü märk
    thè sílènt lettèrs. .... and the use of a voiced s or /z/ for some plurals.

    It is usually difficult to say an unvoiced /s/ after a voiced consonant. It can be done but usually results in a /ts/ as in *lance.
    If we wanted to pronounce *boyz the way it is spelled, we would probably spell it *boyce.

  9. sup mayne we be keepin it real where i be mayne yall stuf be wack mayne

  10. Tai, I have no idea what you mean!

  11. My husband is from Jamaica and he was taught this rule. He also pronounces many words differently and the rule seems to work, for him! His only exception: Antigua. He says Americans pronounce it wrong, it should be "Antiga" (ignoring the u all together).

  12. Last year was my first year teaching first grade. We did a blending board each morning where I wrote one sound at a time, and I remember being speechless for a few seconds the times I realized the "rules" I'd drilled into their minds did not apply. I'm sure it's confusing to be a kid.

  13. Dear Ann (Onimuss)
    Yes, I'm sure there are a lot of confusions for kids. I see it as a teacher's job to try to unravel those confusions and show the truth clearly. Of course, English spelling does challenge us in that task!

    But teaching nice regular square holes and then trying to force round words into them doesn't help. Giving learners the tools to dig around to find some different shaped holes to plop words innto feels much more helpful to me.

  14. You asked for spelling rules that aren't. Here's a common one "i before e, except after c." In the book Wordplay - A Curious Dictionary of Language Oddities it lists examples of where this not true. Words spelled with e before i, such as albeit; weird; neither; and not forgetting jangadeiro, plus words spelled with i before e after c, such as ancient; deficient; proficient; glacier; hacienda; and financier.
    learn spelling games

  15. I teach my students the rules and then tell them that they don't always apply because the English language is very tricky - but they should give it a try - if it doesn't make sense then try something else.

  16. there are a lot of things that effect spelling. Have you thought of looking at what sound the letters are making rather than just looking at the spelling? Sometimes rules work in the listening world but not when you put it on paper. Also there is the background of the word as well. Many words found in English are not actually English. Also come from other languages eg. pizza. I think you have a valid point in that not all 'rules' are actually rules but there are a lot of factors that have built and framed these 'rules' as well.

  17. As a first grade teacher, I teach rules, but always preface it with "there are always rule breakers!"

  18. I heard about this rule from a friend when I was studying the history of spelling, phonetics and efforts to simplify spelling. Thus, I was surprised recently to realize a whole category of words, the ae and oe ligatures, have largely been simplified, some going through two-steps, with the original two vowels first separated, then simplified to a single vowel. http://retinart.net/typography/typographic-marks-unknown-ii-ligatures-blockquotes/

  19. I was taught both of these 'rules' as a child. They were better than nothing when standing in front of a class trying to read or spell a word. When I was learning Spanish, I was taught 'rules' for spelling and pronunciation, but many of the words used in daily conversation broke the rules. Common usage may be the source of many rule breakers in English as well.

  20. Have you heard of expectancies rather than rules? I teach students that they can expect that many words are written using this expectancy and many are not.

  21. "A Vowel Pair Syllable has two adjacent vowels that code only one sound. Treat each pair with loving care, code them with an underline. Five unique sounds are spelled with vowel pairs: /ōō/, /ŏŏ/, /au, aw/, /oi, oy/ and /ou, ow/." All other vowel pairs are duplicate spellings of the five short or five long vowel sounds.

  22. Alice in WonderlandSaturday, January 21, 2012

    I took my training to be an academic language therapist through an Orton-Gillingham school. We were NOT to teach this rule. The purpose of rules is to make spelling easier for students. Something that is reliable only about 50% of the time does not make things easier. O-G teaches very few rules, only 5. With the various vowel-pairs, it's better to study one vowel pair at a time, read a bunch of examples so as to be able to read them in paragraphs.
    It's unfortunate that the Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing, LiPS,Progrm teaches this rule. The first 13 chapters of the LiPS Program are wonderful in eliciting and developing auditory discrimination in depth and the alphabetic principle. The otherwise excellent program is just not strong once it transitions into spelling.

  23. I know the rule "When 2 vowels go out walking the first one does the talking" from Letterland (UK). It may have existed before that.

    I've heard Barbara Brann from http://www.bmbeducation.com.au/html/s01_home/home.asp say the only words in English with the ea sound in great are great, break and steak. People at my school follow her religiously and teach a lot spelling through rhyming eg tail, snail, fail. However those teachers also say that children tend to overuse such strategies and I am skeptical about teaching that needs to be unlearned afterwards. Having a lot of experience with ELLs I also know that these lists are close to meaningless.

    1. I'd better qualify that last statement and add that it's my experience that such lists are not very useful to newly arrived students learning English.

  24. I am currently taking a class and we were taught that when two vowels go a walking the first one does the talking only applies in 35 percent of cases. We were told not to teach this.

  25. That's good to hear.

  26. I confess ... yes I use this rule and any other 'rule' that allows me to give a student another strategy. My preference though is to explain these 'rules' as guidelines. They are simply a tool in their toolbox that might help them decode the word, phrase, sentence or essentially get some meaning from their efforts.

  27. Jes(ie) ? shoule be an EE sound
    fr(ie)nd ? the "ie" is made to sound as a letter (e) as opposed to sounding as a long vowel

    It is a good concept to teach towards younger children but not to encourage it as they get older. I must admit though if the child is too fast in their academic learning, then they do need to be brought out of this habbit as it could delay them in progressing as far as they could.

    The age of the child however will vary upon their individual progressive abilities.

  28. THANK YOU! Thank you for this blog. I recently saw the "when two vowels...." song and clip at my sons school and instantly thought "But that's just not true!" and it's been bugging me ever since. I will make sure to NOT follow up this teaching at home :)

  29. My son is dyslexic and when in a regular school, he just listed exceptions for his teacher. He's going to a school for dyslexic kids next year. And he wanted me to share this:

  30. For those of us who can spell and read easily we don't need rules to reason through things. Our brain somehow just let's us know when something is spelled wrong. For Dyslexics they need tools. My daughter's tutor teaches her rules, like 2 vowels go walking, but also teaches her how to spot the exceptions. She does not say every set of 2 vowels together is part of two vowels go walking. If you have a good phonics program and teach it fully there are very few exceptions.

  31. The word "does"(plural of female deer) follows the rule, but not the verb "does"

  32. As a person named Deirdre, I find that as adults everyone remembers "i before e except after c" and therefore they misspell my name Dierdre. So I wish they remembered this "rule" of "the second vowel makes the first one say its name" at least enough to make sense of the possibility that the e might come before the i in my name...