When my first-grade student stopped at a word he didn’t recognize, I asked, “What type of syllable is it?” Because he recognized the d at the end of the word, he replied “Closed,” scrunched down in his chair, and read the short vowel word “Held.” He scrunched down because he remembered how it felt to be the short vowel in a closed syllable. It is common for my students to sit tall for long vowels and scrunch for short ones because acting out the syllable types cements their learning.
Syllable types are spelling patterns that help the reader identify the pronunciation of the vowel. Students can see the patterns, and the addition of embodied learning helps them retain and recall the knowledge more efficiently. Research has shown that when students represent the information that they are learning spatially, like what happens with embodied learning, they use less working memory, making it easier to think.
Different Syllable types
An open syllable ends with one vowel. The one vowel in the open syllable is long and is marked with a macron (a straight line above the vowel). Think of words like hi, go, and shy.
A closed syllable ends with at least one consonant, and it also has only one vowel. The one vowel in a closed syllable is short, so it is marked with a breve (the curved line above the vowel). They include words like bed, pick, and match.
A vowel-consonant-e syllable (or magic e) ends with a vowel, then a consonant, and then an e. The e is silent and the vowel is long, so it is marked with a macron. This includes words like skate, theme, and flute.
Acting out Syllables
Initially, I teach the syllable types by sight and sound. Then, I have the students act out the syllable types while holding letters. Since every syllable has a vowel, that is where most of the action happens. After that, my students act out the syllables:
1. I count the letters in the word and ask that number of students to come up front. I give each a letter. (I keep track of who plays the vowel so that everyone gets a chance eventually.)
2. An additional student uses a short rope to create the appropriate diacritical mark (macron or breve) above the student who is representing a vowel.
3. The students line up in order so that the class can read the letters from left to right.
4. Each student holds up their letter and says the sound. Then, the class blends the sounds (phonemes), and they say the word.
For example, the words no/not/note are great examples of how the class can act out the sounds of the syllable.
Open syllable: Because the vowel is at the end of the open syllable, the student who is representing the vowel can dance and hold their arms (and letter) up high while they say the long vowel sound. For example, in the word NO, the first student holds an N and says “/n/,” and the second student holds an O up high, saying “/o/!” At the same time, another student stands behind the “vowel” holding a rope pulled straight, so that it looks as if a macron is above the vowel.
- I ask, “What is the word?” Students shout, “No!”
- “What type of syllable is it, and how do you know?” “It is open because it ends with one vowel. The vowel is long.”
Closed syllable: When a consonant comes to close the vowel in for a closed syllable, the “vowel” squats down and makes its short sound. Starting with NO, we can change the word to the closed-syllable word NOT. As before, the first two students hold an N and an O. Then, a third student, holding the consonant T, closes the O by tapping the student on the head to indicate that it is time to squat. The students say their sounds: “/n/,” “/short o/,” and “/t/.” The student with the rope changes it to form a breve.
- I ask, “What is the word?” They shout, “Not!”
- “What type of syllable is it, and how do you know?” “It is closed because it ends with a consonant. The vowel is short.”
Vowel-consonant-e syllable: This same series of letters can be changed to a third syllable type.
A student with the silent E quietly tiptoes up, taps the “vowel” on the head, and encourages him to stand. The students say: “/n/,” “/long o/,” “/t/,” and the student holding the rope forms a macron.
- I ask, “What is the word?” They shout, “Note!”
- “What type of syllable is it, and how do you know?” They say, “Vowel-consonant-e because it ends with a vowel, then a consonant, and then an e. The e is silent and the vowel is long.”
Students love being the vowel—standing on their toes when they’re long and squatting down when short. They also enjoy the power of being the consonant that closes the vowel in and the silent e that makes the vowel long. Acting out the syllable types makes the abstract concept concrete. Since the movement connects to the meaning of the concept, the retention and application are much stronger.
Knowing these syllable types makes it easier for students to take a large word like fantastic, divide it into three syllables, identify that they are all closed so the vowels will each be short, and read făn-tăs-tĭc.