When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking

I've always had a natural mistrust of the letter e. It was the egg, Humpty Dumpty, who fell off the wall, yolk and albumen spilling viscously. In high school, I adopted the Greek epsilon, ε, and have scrawled it ever since.

e is a very tricky letter, I tell my young students. It's like the e of flea, and jumps clean over consonants and makes innocent vowels sitting there wake up and say their names. a becomes æ. At becomes ate. It's good, that letter e, but it can't jump over two or three consonants, so 'settle' remains 'settled.' And if e is next to c, watch out: e gets a crush, we could say. Then c gets stars in her eyes and forgets to be a 'k' and becomes a sinuous 's.' How do you read 'receives'? Of course, when two vowels go walking, one becomes shy, perhaps bashful, while the other proclaims its name.

Sometimes my young students can't read 'boat' or 'rain' or 'real' and so we jump up and walk around the room holding hands and I say, "We're a boat! I'll be a bashful 'a'; you be a courageous 'o' and say your name!" Are they puzzled? Maybe at first; then the laughter; then they start thinking up words we can play. If a parent looks in, I say, "It's okay! We're vowels marching around the dining room table!" They smile and withdraw politely.

Never mind the exceptions, I say - that's why we have memories: to memorize the exceptions!

I teach phonetically with flash cards that we make together as we travel into the wondrous land of reading. I teach differently to the regular school system of expecting children to 'pick up' reading from a reading-rich environment. Often my students simply memorize stories that have been read to them and are unable to recognize words out of that context. Teaching them phonetically gives them a way in to reading anything anytime. When my little students get tired or on 'overload' before our weekly hour is up, I'll switch roles: "Okay, time for you to teach me!" And I read so badly and make so many mistakes, but all so earnestly, they're laughing almost too hard to correct me, but correct me they do, my beautiful little charges.

My only motive, afterall, is to set them on a path of delight in the craziness of leaping e's, and vowel pairs who are friends, one out-going and one shy, ou's that are yowling, and the super shy silent h's that follow all the w's of every question word, as I hopefully open the world that a love of reading provides.

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(This little piece shows the barest surface of a phonetic-based reading system. And, yeah, their marks usually rise about 2 grade points; if they were getting D's, after a couple of months of the crazy Tuesday Tutor, we could expect B's; meaning, yeah, it's not just fun but they also learn actual reading skills that they get to keep after Ms. Tutor's a phonetically dim memory...)

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