George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Teacher watching while a student writes

Syllable division can mask morphological boundaries and thus hide the meaningful structures of words. Now there's a statement to think about. How many times have you seen the word every misspelled as "evry"? What did you do to remedy the situation? I bet you over-pronounced the word to help the student perceive all of the written syllables -- that's what most teachers do, myself included.

Spoken Stress

English is not a syllable-timed language. It is a stress-timed language. This means that syllables bear little to no effect on our writing system. Our written language, like any written language, is meant to convey and record meaning, not just to represent phonemes with graphemes. So the syllables that we pronounce in spoken language will be different, in many circumstances, from the way we represent them in written language. Often when we teach kids how to spell or "sound out" unfamiliar words, we ask them to speak unnaturally.

Pronounce every out loud. I'm going to guess that you what you said can be represented this way: /'Εvri/. Am I right? How many syllables did you pronounce? Probably two -- and if you pronounced three, you are either a non-native English speaker or you over-pronounced the word. Now look at the word every. How many syllables are represented in writing? Three. In traditional syllable instruction, we would divide the word like this: ev + er + y. As teachers, we then over-enunciate the word to help the child hear all the phonemes in each syllable in order to help him or her spell the word. The problem is that spoken and written syllables do not necessarily match in English words, so by over-enunciating the "syllables," we are misrepresenting how the written word works.

Teaching reading and spelling by teaching syllable division can mask the morphological boundaries of words, and that's where the meaning is. So for the word every, we start with a conversation about what the word means. Have the student use the word in a sentence. A quick trip to The Online Etymology Dictionary reveals that every is related to ever, and that is a good place to start. We can hypothesize the base to be ever. Now the student understands the reason for the medial e in every. More importantly, the student now understands that written language is meaning based, and he or she will be able to spell every without an over-pronunciation that distorts the word and actually hinders comprehension.

Let's also take a look at the word sparkle. In traditional syllabication, this word would be divided the following way: spar / kle. The word is said to be comprised of an r-controlled syllable and a consonant-le syllable. But think about the meaning of this word. A sparkle is a frequent spark, so the morpheme boundaries are spark + le. Spark is the base, and the -le is the frequentative suffix. By teaching this word via syllabication, we are masking the meaning of the word, and thus masking the purpose of orthography.

Pronunciation Through Meaning

Let's have some fun to experience how spoken syllables don't necessarily identically represent written syllables. Pronounce the following sentence, and make sure to stress every single syllable. This means that there will be no schwas and that every syllable will be enunciated in full:

I trusted the president not to repeat history and be good to his family.

There are 22 written syllables in that sentence, and if you enunciated each one per my instructions, you probably sounded a little funny. The word trusted has two syllables, but the second one is a schwa. Instead of over-enunciating, teach the student to think about the meaning of the word and identify the morphemes. President is an interesting word to think about. A president is someone who presides over others. You can see that the vowel i changes the pronunciation from preside to president, but the spelling does not change. Pronunciation changes, but meaning and spelling do not.

It's a big paradigm shift to begin understanding that spelling (and reading) via syllable types is questionable at best and detrimental at worst. But don't take it from me. You can find all the evidence you need in the English writing system. Next time you look at a word, ask yourself what it means and what its morphemes are, and then pronounce it. You will never see language the same way again.

More About Words

If this has left you wanting more (and it usually does), I highly suggest the following free resources:

Be prepared to get lost in these websites, never to think about language the same way again. Enjoy the linguistic journey, and remember to trust your students' intellect. They can and do understand these orthographic truths as very young children.

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master reader's picture

I found this very interesting and a great way to view writing a language that can be very frustrating and confusing for small children.

Anne-Marie Morey's picture

I can't explain how much I love this post. I'm sometimes a bit embarrassed to admit that I rarely teach syllable types to students anymore. Instead, it's so much more powerful to teach students that English words are often build up of meaningful chunks. Instead of encouraging rote memorization and application of rules, my students get to use reason to spell and read words.

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