3. Spelling & Reading Double Vowels

Rules and Patterns

Along with sounding out simple words and memorizing high frequency words, children begin to learn and apply spelling “rules” or patterns for combinations of letters. These rules help children break the code of double vowels and consonant blends that have their own sounds. As they’re sorting out these spelling patterns, writing the words helps them to “burn it into their brains,” as I explain to my students. The many exceptions to the rules are learned over time.

Because so much of our spelling has to be memorized by sight, visual learners have an easier time learning spelling. That’s about 80% of us.

The other 20% who are more strongly auditory or hands-on (kinesthetic) learners take longer to memorize spellings.  And those who have visual or auditory processing challenges, which used to be called “dyslexia,” need even more support. If your child seems to have one of these issues, talk with his teacher and give him extra support at home. For example, chanting spelling words out loud can help auditory learners.

At first glance, people often judge someone’s writing negatively if they see misspellings. It distracts them from the actual content of what is written. This can be hard on the self-esteem of the child who has a harder time learning spelling. On top of that, “spell check” on the computer is not always helpful for these children (or adults). Reassure your child that it’s what he writes that matters and that everyone needs an editor!

How to answer, “How do I spell…?”

When a child asks me, “How do I spell…?” whatever it is, I ask him, “What does it start with?” I remind him to say the word slowly and stretch it out to hear the other sounds. If he asks, for example, if it’s a “c” or a “k,” I tell him. If the word follows some spelling rule, I’ll remind him of the rule. Some of the first rules a child learns are about how to spell long vowel sounds.

Two Spelling Rules: Long Vowel Words

While your child is learning the long vowel rules, ask him to try the word he’s unsure of both ways, with a short vowel and a long vowel. Is the word cut or cute? Remind him to read ahead to the end of the sentence and then to come back and see what word would make sense.

The sayings below for remembering these two rules help a lot! Whenever your child is stuck on a word that follows either rule, just repeating part of the phrase can put him on the right track. It will also help him to pay attention to spelling patterns – and there are many, many words that follow these rules!

The Silent “e” Rule

1. “When there’s a silent ‘e’ at the end of a short word, it makes the vowel before it say its own name, as in “like.”

Some people call this “magic ‘e’” or “bossy ‘e.’” (illus) There are many, many words that follow this rule, such as bake, name, bike, note, cube.

The “Two Vowels Go a-Walking” Rule

2. “When two vowels go a-walking, the first one does the talking, and it says its own name” – as in rain/day, see/eat, pie, boat/snow, blue.  This rule has exceptions. For example, “ea,” has a short e sound in feather and a long a sound in great and break.

It takes a lot of practice to memorize which pattern the words follow. Doing “word sorts” and making “flip books” of rhyming families, like boat, coat, float, throat, and goat, helps reinforce these spellings.

Here’s an example of a word sort for 3 spellings: “ai” in the middle of the word or syllable, “ay” at the end of the word, and “a plus magic/bossy e.” You can use any combination of vowels that have the same sound for practicing the various spellings, including the trickier “special vowel” combinations below, such as  “oo” in zoo, “ew” in new and “ue” in blue.


Board games can also help practice these spellings, as you can see in the example below. These two ways of spelling ee/ea and ai/ ay words are helped by having your child read the word, cover it up and spell it out loud.


“Special Vowels” Spelling

There are some vowel combinations that make their own special sounds. This is part of what makes English so complex and spelling difficult to memorize. Encourage your child to have fun with these phonics spelling patterns by playing the games and doing the activities listed at the end of these articles.

Special Vowels That Have Their Own Sound:

These vowel combinations take time to sort out, learning which words follow which patterns. In fact, “word sorts” are a good way to practice memorizing this. I’ve given you enough words for the different double vowels below to use for word sorts, like the one for ai and ay. Children enjoy making “Flip Books” and illustrating index cards with these words too.

At the top of 2 or 3 columns, write the spelling patterns that have the same sound, like “oo” and “ew” and “ue.” Then give your child words to list under the correct spelling with your support, for example, zoo, moo, cool, moon, spoon, school, etc. vs. new, knew, few, grew, threw, jewel vs. blue, clues, glue, due, cue, fuel, etc. (and an exception to the rule: through).

Each of these two vowels together make their own sound (oo, ou).

oo   has two different sounds.  

Long “oo” as in zoo, cool, pool, broom, moon, spoon, rooster

Short “oo” as in book, look. took, cook, hook, shook

ou  usually says “ou” as in out, ouch, house, cloud, round

ow has two sounds: “ow” as in “how, now, brown cow”

or long o (o says its own name) as in “snow, crow, blow, mow”

ew as in new, makes the same sound as “oo” in zoo

oi and oy always make the same sound, as in “oil” and “boy”

au and aw sound like short o, as in haul, August, saw, awesome, awful

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