Syllables

In kindergarten, we start to teach children to recognize the “parts” in words. We don’t always use the term “syllables”, but that is exactly what we are referring to when we say how many “parts” there are in a given word. Students are often taught to clap the number of parts they can hear in a word (i.e. there are 3 “parts” in computer – com/pu/ter ).
Unfortunately, many teachers don’t know that there are different types of syllables and that syllable types can be exceptionally helpful when teaching young children to read. Beyond clapping the parts in words, we can use syllable types to help students spell and read new words. When students recognize a specific syllable pattern, they can predict the most likely sound for the vowel to make, and become more efficient at solving unknown words.

Syllables Defined

So how can we define syllables so that students can understand? The following definition has worked well with my students:

  • a syllable is a word, or part of a word, with 1 vowel sound

Step one of understanding syllables is definitely still hearing the parts in words. This should be practiced daily with students, just as you practice the alphabet sounds or counting on the number line. A fun activity at the start of the year is practicing counting the syllables in the names of your students. They love hearing their name said, and can learn to clap the syllables (or parts) in each other’s names.

Once students understand what a syllable is, you are ready to begin introducing the types of syllables and how students can use syllable types to learn to read and write.

Syllable Types

The type of syllable affects the sound the vowel makes (long or short). Here are the main types that you can teach to help with decoding and spelling:

  • Closed Syllable:  a single vowel, followed by 1 or more consonants, will make its short sound (e.g., cat, flip, block, patch)
  • Open Syllable:  a single vowel at the end of a syllable will make its long sound (e.g., go, he, my, ta-ble)
  • Vowel-consonant-e:  the vowel says its name and the e stays silent (e.g., cake, mine, kite, home)
  • Vowel teams:  two vowels work together to make 1 vowel sound – note – “y” and “w” act as vowels when they follow another vowel (e.g., eat, street, boat, snow, play)
  • Consonant – l – e:  found at the end of multi-syllabic words – the consonant-le becomes its own syllable (e.g., ta-ble, lit-tle, pud-dle, peo-ple)
  • R-controlled syllable:  the r controls the vowel sound (e.g., car, her, hurt, first)
For the sake of this resource, we have selected a logical order to introduce the syllables and syllable types. We have started with Closed Syllables, as they have short vowel sounds. Many students find the short vowels sounds easier to start with, as they often come in with some knowledge of these (many will say “a is for apple” ). Once students are comfortable with Closed Syllables, they can begin to explore other syllable types, and distinguish between the types as they read. As students move through the series, new syllable types are added and incorporated with the syllable type(s) already mastered. This allows students to sequentially expand their understanding of syllable types as well as consolidating what is known.

Before you begin

Prior to beginning these early readers, students should:

  • be able to give the sound for most consonants
  • be able to give the short sound for most vowels
  • understand that vowels are different – they have a long and a short sound
  • should have a beginning ability to blend sounds together (e.g. be given an “o” and  a “p” and say “op”)

Through reading this series, students will learn:

  • what a “closed syllable” is and how to recognize it
  • understand that vowels are different and can make different sounds – where the vowel is in the word can effect the sound that it makes

Our stories still have a very strong sense of meaning and structure. Students should still be encouraged to think about the story and what would make sense. Reading is about gaining meaning from a text, and students need to understand this right from the beginning. It is critically important, however, that they learn how to decode unknown words effectively, and syllable knowledge can help them do this. The ultimate goal is for them to be able to solve words on the fly in unfamiliar texts – a critical skill if they are going to transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”.