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.

(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...)


  1. E for excellent. I love how you make teaching fun. Would that every teacher had that philosophy.

    I've grown to know you as an exceptionally creative person. So the creativeness expressed here is no surprise at all.

  2. Because letters have always hurt so much, I am naturally suspicious of them all. Though with a friend I often laugh about "good letters" (O, X, A), "bad letters" (R, N, E), and "terrible letters" (b, d, p, q, and, of course, a which has way too many shapes). I sometimes wish for a phonetic language (ah, Spanish! Portugese! Italian! Czech!) or at least French which might offer a dozen alternate spellings for one sound but does not use the same spelling for more than one. But I can be happy that my first languages are not the "worse ones" like polish, Irish, or Welsh.

    Anyway, a lovely tale of motivation and magic.

  3. This made me smile. I can imagine you as a very Effective and Engaging teacher!

  4. Thanks, Twoberry, and MB! My training is really in university essay tutoring and developmental editing in college and university publishing. But I taught my son to read phonetically before he started school, and it's amazing how these things come back to you. This piece was based on tutoring I did last year; this year I've moved on to the world of high school and the ESL student. I love being a tutor and have so far managed to avoid teaching as a bona fide teacher since I have an anathema to giving students grades. I'd rather be on among those helping them to achieve their individual dreams.

    Narrator, this little piece must seem 'kindergarten' to you! But at least we agree that if it's fun, and useful, then it may open some beautiful doors to a world where a love of learning can blossom for the student...

  5. i like this site. ill be checking back. great post. keep your spirits right.

  6. Exuberance! I tutored a neighbor's kid in reading when I was still in grade school. He loved to draw, so I was able to motivate him to read by letting him draw the objects he was able to puzzle out. It worked fabulously.

  7. e_journeys, yes, I do something similar with my ESL students when they are tired, on 'overload.' We do word association, but my words are interspersed with ones they have to reach for, and I draw little pictures, and they do too, and we laugh and before we know it they've perked up and we can go on with our lesson.

  8. I love the opening of doors. All I know these days is that every child is different, but that fun plus excitement usually equals learning. I sure wish all kids could have tutors who cared, or at least teachers in schools that really care. That see children as the humans they are instead of the points on test score curves our leaders have chosen to make them.

    And I, of course, agree. Avoid giving grades at almost all costs. That is one of those evils the world needs much less of...

  9. Narrator, yes, but do you know how tired one feels after a one-on-one session? You have plummeted deeply, found where it's smooth, and found where words, meanings, coherencies slip, perhaps fragment. And you've tried to find the disparateness to reweave it, enable the text through the understanding and words of the child to be whole. Not from your vantage, but from the child's. To leave them with accomplishment and enduring mystery. But they just want to go by rote. They want to lay down the letters and words one by one and forget the moments of slippages. At the end you are both exhausted with the depth of your learning- for there's been no lesson to follow, only an exploration. All we want to do perhaps is to hand out keys: here, go explore. You know how to do it...

    Your comments are the insightful, caring ones of an educator. Thank you.

  10. fabulous work you have done and do, brenda! the gift of reading, the gift of freedom and exploration.

    i love this post. your creativity is exciting. sometimes when i read your posts i am intrigued by the creative force in you and wonder about your childhood and the events that have shaped you. it is always such a delight to read your work.


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