The Big Five: Phonics-Teaching Syllabication


The Big Five: Phonics-Teaching Syllabication


Most of you would not think that syllabication would be a controversial topic, but it can be, so I tread carefully here. I actually witnessed first hand a heated discussion between the creator of a very successful Orton-Gillingham (O-G) based program and an Orton-Gillingham practitioner on this very topic. I should add the heat was mostly coming from the practitioner. “Why might this have been so?” you may well ask. The presenter was suggesting a simplification of the process of chunking multisyllable words, so a student can more easily decode and blend them. I was keen to hear what the speaker had to say, as I have had, and continue to have, many students that really struggle when reading longer words.


Let me backup a bit here and remind you about the topic of my last blog, which was teaching syllable types or patterns. You can view it here. In this blog I defined a syllable, introduced the six syllable types, and suggested when a student would be ready to learn about such patterns. I also wrote about the importance of teaching patterns, and, as we are now discussing syllabication, I’d like to quote the following from that blog:


“When students are faced with reading multisyllable words, it is extremely helpful that they are familiar with the different syllable types or patterns. They will then have strategies to divide such a word into its syllables, and from there to blend the syllables so they can pronounce the whole word. Being able to spot the common spelling patterns or syllable types will aid them in the division. Instead of guessing, they will be able to attack long words and read them accurately and fluently. When encoding (spelling) a word, listening for the vowel sound in a particular syllable can help a student select a syllable pattern and “map” the phonemes in that syllable onto the letters they write.“ 


Many O-G based programs will introduce you to a number of syllabication rules or generalizations. You will need to determine which might be the most helpful for your students know. I encourage you to learn about them and think upon them as I have. The Orton-Gillingham Online Academy’s Basic Language Course provides you with full details of these syllabication rules or generalizations, with lots of materials that will allow your student to practice them. The video link I have provided in Sources for Additional Reading and Watching, will discuss what Maria S Murray describes as six simple syllabication rules. In this blog, I will discuss where I have got to on my syllabication journey, which started out with knowing and teaching the rules and generalizations, and has developed into a more simplified way of dividing syllables within words. This simplification started when I heard the speaker that ignited the heated discussion I mentioned above.


The speaker at this conference asked us to consider a number of questions, that we would ask our students about a multisyllable word they don’t recognize. At the conference we were also provided with small Post-it notes on which to write our syllables, before blending them to create a word. Today I use this company’s Syllaboards with my students. This kit includes five boards, a dry erase marker, and a mini eraser. This series of questions allows you to use a “lose the rules” approach.


1. How many vowels do you see?

2. Are they together or apart?

3. How many syllables will there be? 


Ask the student to break the word into syllables, using Post-it notes, cards, or Syllaboards. Then help them “adjust the syllables” until they can be blended into a word.


So, how does this work? I start by writing out the multisyllable word to be decoded, on a board or card. Next, when I ask the student, “How many vowels do you see?” I ask them to underline the vowels on that board. 



Next, I ask them if the vowels are grouped together, or separated by consonants, which will be a helpful question when dealing with vowel teams. Following this, I ask them how many syllables we have which is dependent on the number of vowels they have underlined. 


When moving beyond the closed and open syllable types, students are asked to look for vowel-consonant-e, vowel teams, r-controlled vowels, and finally consonant-l-e syllable types, as this may mean having more than one vowel on the same Post-it note or Syllaboard. 


They lay out the correct number of Post-it notes or Syllaboards and bring down the vowels by writing them.



Next they are asked to bring down the surrounding consonants to complete the syllables, and then they blend the syllables and read the word. 



If they are dealing with syllable types beyond the closed and open syllables that have already been mentioned, they are asked if they see any of those patterns, and if so they are expected to bring down the whole of that pattern on to their Syllaboard. 


Using this approach you have to allow for flexibility. For example, the word establish could be written in the two forms shown in the image. Close approximations, even when their pronunciation isn’t 100% correct, are often enough for students to correctly read a word. This often happens when they approach a word with a schwa, which I will discuss a little later. 


I have found this approach breaks bad habits, like guessing and skipping parts of words, because they have to read the whole word through. This encourages students to “see” a word’s structure like a “good reader.” Using the boards also avoids dealing with confusing dividing lines, which can sometimes be read as additional letters.


The schwa, which is a vowel sound in an unaccented (unstressed) syllable, needs to be taught fairly early on. We call it a “lazy” or “reduced” vowel sound. The schwa does not sound the way it is spelled. Any vowel can make a schwa sound, which sounds like the short u, or in some cases the short i. Examples include ‘a’ in about or ‘e’ in integrate. As most multisyllable words contain a schwa, students need to know about it before embarking on decoding longer words. Students must learn to “flex” a vowel that isn’t making the sound they expect, when blending the syllables in a word. 


Students also benefit from knowing about suffixes and prefixes, to aid them as they bring down the surrounding consonants and place them around the vowel and syllable patterns they have already written on their boards, or Post-it notes. This would be seen in words such as repeating, which is divided as re-peat-ing.


This has been a very successful approach for my students, but they have still benefited from the introduction of an adaptation of two syllabication generalizations: “Two may split” and “One may run.” The rhyme seems to help them remember these as a pair. “Two may split” refers to dividing between the two consonants in a vowel-consonant-consonant-vowel (VCCV) pattern. They already know they can’t split a digraph. “One may run” refers to the way that one consonant between two vowels may run into the next syllable, such as bonus, => bo-nus, or it may stay as, in planet, => plan-et. This has helped my students make a decision about where to place their consonants on their boards or Post-it notes. We also discuss “flexing” the vowel and moving the consonant backward or forward into another syllable, if the word doesn’t sound quite right.


Spoken and written syllables are often divided differently. The quote and examples below have been taken from this video link 


Moats and Tolman (2009) “Spoken syllable divisions often do not coincide with or give rationale for conventions of written syllables.” 


Fantastic is spoken as fan-ta-stic, but when decoded or spelled it is fan-tas-tic. When we say the word riddle we say it as ri-ddle, but when decoding or spelling it is rid-dle. When helping my students with spelling such words as riddle, I have introduced the Happy Rule, where I discuss the fact there must be a consonant closing off the first syllable, if the sound they are hearing is short. They then double up the letter that represents the sound they hear at the beginning of the second syllable. Another generalization that is helpful in syllabication of consonant-l-e words is “Start at ‘e’ and count back 3.” 


The “Fourth Grade Slump” and syllabication are closely connected, but this is often overlooked by teachers. Faith Borkowsky tells us in her book “Failing Students or Failing Schools” that in fourth grade:


“The words have more syllables, and many children have difficulty reading multisyllable words. There are children who can decode fairly well at a one-syllable level but do not know how to read words accurately and fluently when they must read through longer words. Since most decoding instruction stops by second grade at the latest, children are not being directly taught how to read multisyllable words just at the point when these words begin to become prevalent. Furthermore, fluency is expected by the intermediate grades and not knowing how to read multisyllable words negatively affects a child’s ability to read smoothly.” 


If we wish to avoid these children guessing words and creating other bad habits used by poor readers, which ultimately impacts comprehension, we need to teach them syllabication. 


Through this blog, I have just tried to provide you with some guidance and helpful ideas about simplifying the syllabication process, but as you can see I don’t have a total “lose the rules” or generalization approach either. I take a similar approach to spelling generalizations, which I will be discussing in my next blog. 


Sources for Additional Reading and Watching

1. Orton-Gillingham Online Academy Basic Language Course (Level 1)

2. Really Great Reading and Syllaboards

3. Reading Horizons

4. State University of New York (OSWEGO) Knowledge Series for Teachers of Reading and Spelling by Maria S. Murray, Ph.D. 

5. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print by Marilyn Jager Adams

6. Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention by Faith Borkowsky 


Excellent Classroom Resources:

1. Orton-Gillingham Online Academy Transition Layer and Syllabication Unit Workshop

2. Orton-Gillingham Online Academy Syllabication Unit eBook





Lorna Wooldridge is a dyslexia specialist tutor with over twenty-five years of experience and qualifications in the field of learning differences, from both the UK and USA. Lorna has a unique perspective on this condition as she has dyslexia, and her passion is to serve this community in any way she can.

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