Language Arts Canadian Lead Primary School

Syllables

WHAT IS A SYLLABLE?

A syllable can be defined as an uninterrupted unit of sound that can be made with one impulse of the voice. For example, the word ‘window’, if hummed rather than said, requires your vocal cords to make two separate humming sounds. Try it and see.

The humming represents a peak of acoustic information or sonority. Syllables are therefore peaks of sonority in the speech stream. Because the vocal tract is open and making the most noise when articulating vowel sounds, those sounds are usually present in a syllable peak, but not always. Some consonants also contain a high degree of acoustic information and serve as peaks in some words.

When spelling syllables, it’s a good idea to count them out and tackle each one separately. A reliable rule of thumb is to include a vowel letter.

Some children struggle to count syllables. They mix them up with phonemes and count them inaccurately.

This is where a different, but highly effective technique works:

  1. Have students say the target word out loud.
  2. Check that they have pronounced all the syllables and watch out for syllables that collapse in speech, such as in the words library, Wednesday and difference.
  3. Have students close their lips tight and say the target word. All the air escapes through the nose in distinct impulses.
  4. Count the impulses on the fingers at the same time so that working memory is not an issue.

This, I have found, is the most reliable way to count syllables, since the phonemic information no longer has to be juggled in working memory, only the syllabic.counting for reading

Once children can stably count syllables, they can also be taught to be aware of syllable emphasis. An awareness of this helps with higher order spelling rules, such as polysyllabic doubling and selecting graphemes and morphemes.

When reading, syllables can be counted by underlining and counting the single vowels and vowel digraphs. There is a one-to-one match between number of vowels and number of syllables. Final Silent E is not counted.

Example:

misunderstood       4 lines, 4 syllables

investigate                      4 lines, 4 syllables, (Final Silent E not counted)


A NOTE ON SYLLABLE TYPES

There are various approaches to teaching literacy that incorporate the notion of syllable types. While this may be interesting teacher knowledge, I question its efficacy if it’s being taught to students . Open and closed syllables are the only two syllable types that have operational importance. The others are extraneous metalinguistic labels on things that don’t necessarily lead to accurate spelling and pronunciation.

This view, of course, does not make linguists like me very popular, and if popularity were more important to me than linguistic accuracy, I’d not mention it. However, we need to pick our battles on a need to know/nice to know basis, and I don’t think children need to know labels for syllables more than they need to know the meaning and structure of morphemes.

The Language Arts approach recommends teaching:

  1. Syllable counting
  2. Determining syllable emphasis
  3. Open and closed syllables (i.e. another way, aside from placing it before <e>, to make or stop vowels representing their names in words).
  4. Teaching syllables as morphemes conveying sound, meaning and etymology.

Teacher knowledge about syllables

The following video is intended to increase teacher and practitioner knowledge about syllables. It is not meant to be taught to students.

Two concepts will be introduced:

  1. Sonorants (speech sounds produced with continuous, unobstructed air flow)
  2. Obstruents (speech sounds formed by obstructing air flow)

Syllables Video (7 mins)

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