Using Knowledge of Syllables to Address Learning Gaps

Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

For many students, decoding multisyllabic words (particularly those with complex letter patterns) can be tough at first. We want to help you provide your students with as many tools as you can for them to become successful at reading. In this post, we’re talking about syllable-based strategies—how they can be helpful for decoding, and what their limitations are.

Identifying and breaking words down into syllables

Why is syllabication — breaking down words into syllables — a helpful skill to teach? Well, if we can show students how to break a complex word down into smaller parts, it can be easier for them to decode. There are certain syllable patterns that students can learn and refer to when they come across a difficult word. Here are a few examples of strategies that you can teach:

  • Teach students that every syllable has a vowel sound. Show students to underline each vowel in a word, and then look to the left and right to see if it is part of a vowel team or r-controlled vowel pattern. This will help them determine the number of syllables in the word. A very simple example to start with would be nap-kin (two vowels –> two syllables).
  • Introduce closed and open syllables. While there are a total of six syllable types, closed and open syllables represent over 70% of English syllables. Closed syllables are those that end with a consonant and have a short vowel sound. Open syllables end with the vowel and have a long vowel sound.
  • Look at how many consonants there are between the vowels. Words that contain the VCCV pattern of vowels and consonants (like rab-bit) are usually split between the two middle consonants. For VCV words, have students try splitting the words before or after the consonant—where you split it depends on whether the vowel sound is long (fi-ber) or short (pan-ic).
  • Explain that syllables can’t begin with consonant clusters that wouldn’t begin a word (e.g., ck or ng), or end with consonant clusters that wouldn’t end a word (e.g., bl or fr). Another helpful rule is that digraphs (th) and vowel teams (ea) can’t be split in the middle.
  • Have students look for familiar prefixes and suffixes to help them in breaking up the word (like the un- prefix in unkind or the the -ing suffix in stealing).

For more syllabication strategies (and important exceptions), check out this article from Devin M. Kearns and Victoria M. Whaley. While it’s aimed at helping students with dyslexia, the strategies covered can be beneficial to all students.

Some things to keep in mind

It’s important to remember that while syllabication rules can be helpful, they don’t work 100% of the time. If a word’s meaning is unfamiliar, students may not recognize when they’ve read the word correctly vs. when they need to go back and adjust the syllable divisions and vowel sounds. The schwa /ə/ sound (found in unaccented syllables) can be especially tricky for students, because it doesn’t sound like the short or long version of a vowel. And in some cases, even if your student successfully divides a word into syllables, they may not get the clues they need in order to read it correctly. Also, with more complex words, morphological clues can be more helpful than syllabication strategies when breaking down words into word parts.

For these reasons, it’s best to think of syllabication as just one of the tools students can use when faced with new words. Make sure that your students know about the exceptions to the rules, and teach them to be flexible and draw on their knowledge of known words when using these strategies.

And if you’re interested in shoring up your own knowledge about syllable patterns, we’d love to have you join us in our Advanced Decoding PD on this exact topic! (Check out some of our feedback on these PDs below!)