When two vowels go walking...

When two vowels go walking...

well, if you do see two vowels walking, this is a problem.

Along with my aforementioned knee jerk reactions to hearing magic e, I cringe equally hard hearing people in the reading world say to their students, " When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.¨ Whoever came up with this unsubstantiated rule? I suppose if you are looking for a cutesy rhyme to introduce a few primary vowel combinations, it works. Let us look at how many times it does not work. There are alternatives to this so-called rule. As Orton Gillingham instructors, we use these tactics to inform and instruct our students. We are always reminded never to assume as we connect background knowledge to new material. 

So what are the vowels? They are a, e, i, o, u, sometimes y and in some instances w acts as a vowel in this syllable type. So I need to stop here a moment to inject a conversation I had with a new 3rd-grade student. As a third-grader, we could assume he knew what vowels were. After doing an exercise with alphabet chips, I asked him to identify the vowels. He began by telling me w. My immediate, internal response was, whoo-hoo someone had told him that w can act as a vowel in vowel pairs! He then followed it with, "W, because it is the first letter of my name." Yep, nope, he has no idea what the vocabulary word vowel means. He was quite amazed when I explained the first letter of a name does not have to be a vowel. So that lesson and many after that we laid out those alphabet tiles and pulled out the vowels. The other letters became continents, ya, so there's that too. I brought this story up as an example of how we should never, ever, assume. I cannot stress enough the importance of pre-reading skills. Sounds to me like the making of a new post. Stay tuned.


Vowel pairs, vowel teams, double vowels, diphthongs, vowel digraphs, and vowel combinations are all terms that are substituted for the "two vowels walking" chant. I have always referred to them as vowel pairs, although that is not always accurate when referring to units of letters such as -igh /i/. Vowel combinations have also included letter groupings such as -old, -alt and -ind. Although, I want to clarify the meaning of a double vowel. "Double vowels" are just that: two of the same vowel, which in English are only ee and oo. This term is not to be used as a descriptor for all vowel pairs. In my word books, Words and More Words, I have referred to two vowels as vowel pairs, although, who knows, I may change my mind and rename them. I think there must be a better identifying title.

Let's look at the breakdown of the vowels and combinations they form. The English language contains approximately two dozen variations of vowels working together to indicate numerous pronunciations. This list only includes two vowel sets. 

Single pronunciation (The true “walking-talking” followers!!):

ee /ē/ seed, bee, committee
ay /ā/ day, delay
oa /ō/ goat
oe /ō/ toe

Yep, that's it. 

Varied pronunciations:

  • at the end of a word or often before n or l
ow /aů/ plow, cowl, clown
ow /ō/ grow, grown 
  • usually at the end of a word
ew /ū/ blew
ew /yū/ few
ew /ō/ sew
ey /ē/ money
ey /ā/ they
ue /ū/ blue
ue /yū/ barbecue
  • often in the middle of a word
ea /ē/ leaf
ea /ĕ/ sweat
ea /ā/ great
au /ȯ/ fault
au /ă/ laugh
oo /ū/ boot
oo /ŭ/     look 
ou /aů/   pouch
ou /ō/ boulder
ou /u/ couple
ou /ŭ/ should 
ou /ū/ cougar
ie /ē/ thief
ie /ī/ lie
ei /ē/ receive
ei /ǐ/ forfeit
ei /ā/ vein
eu /yū/ eulogy
eu /ū/ neutral
ui /ū/ suit 
ai /ā/ rain
ai /ă/ plaid
ai /ĕ/ said, again, against
ai /ī/ aisle
Single pronunciations:
oi /ȯi/    coin, soil
oy /ȯi/ toy 
aw /ȯ/ law, dawn, awl 

I'm not a math person, so I can't say with certainty the percentage of times this rule works, however, I can see the numerous times it doesn't. This is how we, as OG practitioners, have an advantage; we can teach our students rules and generalizations. How does the student know what the pronunciation will be of a specific vowel pair? We can teach some of the sounds with tactical rules, as in word placement. The most effective way to teach vowel sets is to begin with a pair with single pronunciation, such as -ay in day. -ay also happens to have a rule, it is usually at the end of a word. When moving on to vowel sets with multiple pronunciations, start with the sound most prevalent, working toward the obscure. For example, I would teach ea as /ē/, work on that a bit, till solid, move on to other things, then revisit ea as /ĕ/. When teaching any new sound or concept I always teach the tactical rule, review word lists containing that sound or concept, write words, and repeat until concepts are automatic. I believe in reading and dictating a lot of words. Repetition is key. Teaching to mastery is essential. 

I gleaned very little information on the origin of this ditty. I do know it has been around a while. I vaguely remember hearing it as a kid. According to my google search and various social media sites, it appears to be in use in full force currently. In 2016, an animated video was released touting this rule. It had 808,344 views and 1.9 k thumbs up and merely 164 thumbs down. I identify with the latter group. It looks like some teachers are still happy with walking/talking vowels. Hopefully, you are not.


happy walking, but leave the vowels at home

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