Teaching Syllables to English Learners

Teaching the types of syllables and how to divide words into syllables is often overlooked in English Language instruction. Many English learners(ELs) memorize words without learning basic phonics or syllable rules. They use prediction skills to guess new words in context but are unable to decode a word when encountered by itself.

Learning the types of syllables and syllable division patterns, enables multilingual students (ELs) to identify single syllable words and decode multisyllable words. Without these valuable skills they will forever remain behand their English speaking peers.

Introduce the Concept of a Syllable 

First, introduce the concept of a syllable. This is often done by clapping or tapping on a desk. Using students' names personalizes this activity. Begin with single syllable names and expand to multisyllables names. For example, "How many syllables are in Noor?" Clap and say, "Noor" at the same time. Repeat with longer names. "How many syllables are in Jorge? Abraham?" This is fun and students quickly grasp the concept.

 Next ask, "Who has a one-syllable name? Two-syllable name? Three-syllable name? Group the names by the number of syllables and write them on the board. Divide the multisyllable names. Practice reading name by syllables.

  • One syllable: Lin, Elle, Frank, June
  • Two syllables: Anna, Hose, Marie, Farid
  • Three syllables: Elliott, Maria, Ferdinand, Rebecca
  • Four syllable: Elizabeth, Alejandro, Valentina, Jeremiah

Syllable Order

Introducing the types of syllable depends on the first language of the student/s. Follow the same order that you used to teach different types of vowels. If their first language is a European language introduce closed syllables first. If their first language does not have long vowel interference, introduce Silent E syllables first. 

Types of Syllables

Most curricula use six syllable types. Because multilingual students (ELs) often learn to read at all ages, this list has eight different types. Digraph vowels are separated from vowel teams for clarity. Prefixes and Suffixes are added because they are very common. When teaching, use beginning ESL vocabulary or known words for examples. Try to keep the focus on learning about syllables, not new vocabulary.

1. A Closed Syllable: has one short vowel and ends with one or more consonants.

  • One consonant ending: can, bed, in, dot, up
  • Two consonant ending: and, best, with, long, duck
  • Three consonant ending: match, sketch, itch, ought, Dutch
  • Four consonant ending: length

Students who are literate in their first language willl often begin noticing and reading words with two closed syllables.

  • pen-cil, sev-en, can-not, mit-ten

    2. An Open Syllable: has a long vowel at the end of a syllable. These are usually found in multisyllable words. English words do not end with the letter 'u'.

    One way to show the difference between closed and open syllables is to compare and contrast them side by side.

    This is a good time to teach about open syllables ending with y. One-syllable words that end with 'y' say the long i sound and two-syllable words that end with y say the long e sound.

    English words that begin and end with an open a usually say schwa. (a-bout, a-way, a-round, are-a).

    Lastly, many barrowed words have vowels that did not change. 'e' = long a and 'i' = long e.  

    • One Syllable: be, hi, go
    • Two Syllables: A-pril, ze-ro, si-lent, o-pen, stu-dent
    • Three Syllables: to-ma-to, po-ta-to, i-de-a (schwa) 
    • Contrast Closed and Open Syllables
    • an, at - a
    • bed, best - be
    • met, men - me
    • him, hit - hi
    • got, god - go
    • Y Open Syllables
    • One-syllable Words: by, my, fly, cry, dry
    • Two-syllables Words: mom-my, hap-py, can-dy, fun-ny, eas-y, ba-by
    • Borrowed Words
    • di-vide, pi-an-o, ra-di-o, au-di-o

      3. A Silent E Syllable: has a long vowel followed by a consonant and silent e. This is a basic pattern in English.

      • name, game, take, tape
      • these, scene, theme, here
      • like, bike, time, fine, line
      • phone, home, bone, note
      • June, tune, rule, huge

      4. A R Vowel Syllable: contains an R vowel. There are several spellings for the /or/ sound. Some curricula include /air/ and /ear/ and their multiple spellings.

      • car, mark, part, start, are (historic spelling)
      • her, verb, germ, were (historic spelling)
      • girl, bird, shirt, first
      • turn, hurt, nurse, church 
      • or, for, short, corn
      • four, pour, door, floor, store, more (Other spellings)
      • air, pair, care, stare, (pear, wear, there)
      • ear, hear, fear, here, cheer, deer

      5. A Vowel Team Syllable: has two vowels that make one long sound. Several of the most common words retain their vowel sounds from before the Great Vowel Shift. These are taught after the regular vowel teams have been learned.

      • AI and AY: rain, train, day, pay
      • EE, EA, and EY: see, meet, eat, tea, bean, key
      • IGH and IE: light, night, tie, die
      • OA, OW, and OE: road, boat, know, grow, toe
      • UE and UI: glue, clue, fruit, suit moon, new
      • EY, EI, and EA: they. hey, their, eight, great, break
      • IE: piece, thief

      6. A Digraph Syllable: has two vowels that make a unique sound. 

      • AW and AU: draw, saw, be-cause, Au-gust
      • OO: book, look, stood, could
      • OO: room, moon, school, tooth
      • OI and OY: coin, point, boy, joy
      • OU and OW: out, house, now, down

      7. A -Cle Syllable: has a consonant followed by le. It is always at the end of a word. These can be preceded by closed, open, r vowel, vowel team and digraph syllables. 'ck' is a digraph and is not separated. Words with ckle are divided between the ck and le. These are taught last.

      • Closed + Cle Syllables: ap-ple, sin-gle, puz-zle
      • Open + Cle Syllables:  a-ble, ti-tle, ta-ble
      • R Vowel + Cle Syllables: cir-cle, pur-ple, spar-kle
      • Vowel Team + Cle Syllables: ea-gle, peo-ple, 
      • Digraph + Cle Syllables: noo-dle, poo-dle, trou-ble, dou-ble
      • CK-LE Syllables: pick-le, freck-le, buck-le

             8. A Prefix and Suffix Syllable: These are very common. Below are some beginning prefixes and suffixes. Recognizing prefixes and suffixes and knowing their meanings helps with decoding multisyllable words.

            • PREFIXES
            • in: in-correct, in- active
            • im: im-polite, im-possible
            • non: non-sense, non-living
            • mis: mis-take, mis-behave
            • over: over-sleep, over-react
            • re: re-read, re-write, re-do
            • un: un-happy, un-kind, un-friendly
            • SIFFIXES
            • able: enjoy-able, break-able
            • er: kind-er, short-er, tall-er
            • est; larg-est, long-est, big-gest
            • ful: care-ful, help-ful, wonder-ful
            • ing: walk-ing, cook-ing, sit-ting
            • less: fear-less, care-less
            • ment: excite-ment, state-ment
            • tion: addi-tion, ac-tion, mo-tion



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