How to Teach Syllables

FREE Unit on Syllable Transformers

Syllable Transformers

Within the science of reading community, several in-house debates can get quite heated. One such topic is the value of teaching syllables or syllable types. Nora Chahbazi of EBLI comments,

I’m certain that teaching rules and syllable types is not necessary in order to learn to read well and quickly, but I am also acutely aware of the vitriol that can result from pushing up against these beloved and common instructional practices. When I even dip my toe into the ‘phonics rules and syllable types’ pool on social media or in discussions, and share about how phonics and multi-syllable words can be taught rules-free so student learning is more effective and efficient, the backlash is instant and severe.

Other respected voices in the science of reading community have different views on the subject of syllabication. According to Dr. Tim Shanahan (2021),

I would definitely teach syllabication. It clearly has value. Though the amount of such teaching can be pretty limited. Nevertheless, decoding instruction is not primarily or mainly about teaching students to sound out words. Such teaching, if successful, must instigate readers to perceive patterns and conditionalities within words (that’s what orthographic mapping and statistical learning are all about).

…So, yes, teach syllabication, but expose kids to the exceptions and teach them to use these divisions conditionally and flexibly.

Now, I’m not placing the two views as polar opposites. Some of these perceived differences may simply involve splitting fine hairs, such as whether to teach the terminology of syllable types or whether explicit or implicit instruction works better.

However, I’m steering somewhat clear of the controversy by dealing with a practical matter: After (or as) students acquire phonemic awareness and are knee-deep into decoding (phonics) and encoding (spelling), they also begin to recognize certain patterns in single-syllable words. Students don’t limit themselves to the phoneme (sound)-grapheme (spelling).  For example,

Precocious Paula notices that some sounds are used more than others: long and short vowels more than consonants. In fact, Paula observes that the teacher always writes the letters representing these sounds in different colors than the consonants.  She also sees that the charts on the walls have these same colors. Bonus-year Bobby notices that every word that his teacher writes has at least one of those vowel spellings. Already-reading Alma may even ask why one vowel sound can have more than one spelling. Conforming Carl may be upset that you won’t let him sound out each spelling in your list of Heart Words (high-frequency words which have a non-phonetic “part to learn by heart.” Analytic Amos may constantly point out those rimes (word families), despite your re-directs to the phoneme-grapheme correspondences.

You can’t (and shouldn’t) stop ’em, so teachers need to learn how to teach syllables.

In other words, through implicit or explicit instruction/practice, students will begin to develop recognition of syllable patterns. As more complex stories and advanced instruction layer in multi-syllabic words, most students identify these syllable patterns and apply this knowledge in their reading and writing.

Multi-syllabic decoding (phonics) and encoding (spelling) are the keys to the kingdoms of reading fluency and academic vocabulary. Reading multi-syllabic words is also a fundamental skill required for the new genres of reading that most students begin in 4th grade: their expository history and science texts.

Spelling Transformers Syllabication Strategy

Note: I am indebted to the late Dr. John Shefelbine of SIPPS and California State University, Sacramento (my MA alma mater) for introducing this basic strategy to me.

Time: The Spelling Transformers whole-class activity takes only a few minutes of concentrated instruction, a few times per week, over a five-week period.

I certainly agree with Dr. Shanahan that instructional time devoted to syllabication should be limited. Tim says,

In studies that found syllabication instruction to improve word recognition and reading comprehension, students received only 2-9 hours of teaching (yeah, even 2 hours of syllable training was beneficial).

Instructional Objectives: Students compare and contrast syllable patterns to read with automaticity by practicing syllable patterns in whole-class response.

Tactics: Rather than an inductive “Here are the rules-with examples-now apply them” approach, students practice many examples of each syllable pattern to achieve mastery of that pattern. The syllable patterns are both caught and taught, by using nonsense syllables in order to focus force students to analyze the phoneme-grapheme correspondences and not rely on previously orthographically mapped sight words. Note that I don’t find value in teaching the terminology (CVC, CVVC, etc.) of syllable types.

Materials/Preparation: The Spelling Transformers activity is designed to use the display projector. This instructional component is from my own comprehensive reading intervention program (promo below). Teachers and students love this fast-paced whole-class response activity. Download the entire five-week activity at the end of this article.


Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Science of Reading Intervention Program

The Science of Reading Intervention Program: Word Recognition includes explicit, scripted, sounds to print instruction and practice with the 5 Daily Google Slide Activities every grades 4-adult reading intervention student needs: 1. Phonemic Awareness and Morphology 2. Blending, Segmenting, and Spelling 3. Sounds and Spellings (including handwriting) 4. Heart Words Practice 5. Sam and Friends Phonics Books (decodables). Plus, digital and printable sound wall cards, speech articulation songs, sounds to print games, and morphology walls. Print versions are available for all activities. First Half of the Year Program (55 minutes-per-day, 18 weeks)

The Science of Reading Intervention Program: Language Comprehension resources are designed for students who have completed the word recognition program or have demonstrated basic mastery of the alphabetic code and can read with some degree of fluency. The program features the 5 Weekly Language Comprehension Activities: 1. Background Knowledge Mentor Texts 2. Academic Language, Greek and Latin Morphology, Figures of Speech, Connotations, Multiple Meaning Words 3. Syntax in Reading 4. Reading Comprehension Strategies 5. Literacy Knowledge (Narrative and Expository). Second Half of the Year Program (30 minutes-per-day, 18 weeks)

The Science of Reading Intervention Program: Assessment-based Instruction provides diagnostically-based “second chance” instructional resources. The program includes 13 comprehensive assessments and matching instructional resources to fill in the yet-to-be-mastered gaps in phonemic awareness, alphabetic awareness, phonics, fluency (with YouTube modeled readings), Heart Words and Phonics Games, spelling patterns, grammar, usage, and mechanics, syllabication and morphology, executive function shills. Second Half of the Year Program (25 minutes-per-day, 18 weeks)

The Science of Reading Intervention Program BUNDLE  includes all 3 program components for the comprehensive, state-of-the-art (and science) grades 4-adult full-year program. Scripted, easy-to-teach, no prep, no need for time-consuming (albeit valuable) LETRS training or O-G certification… Learn as you teach and get results NOW for your students. Print to speech with plenty of speech to print instructional components.

Click the SCIENCE OF READING INTERVENTION PROGRAM RESOURCES for detailed program description, sample lessons, and video overviews. Click the links to get these ready-to-use resources, developed by a teacher (Mark Pennington, MA reading specialist) for teachers and their students.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Cues FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic ELA and Reading Assessments FREE Resource:

Get the Syllable Transformers FREE Resource:

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