Every English syllable must contain a vowel, right?
Like everything in English spelling, there are a couple of exceptions to this “rule”. It’s handy to know what they are, in case a very smart learner asks you about them.
Knowing about these exceptions will probably also make you careful about making sweeping generalisations like the one above. Kids generally don’t like being told things that aren’t precisely true. And actually, neither do you or I.
Consonant syllables with no vowel sound
Try saying the words “button” and “bottle” and thinking carefully about what happens between the “t” sound and the “n” in “button” or the “l” in “bottle”.
Often, nothing happens in between. We just segue straight from the “t” to the “n” or “l”, and don’t actually say a vowel in the last syllable at all.
The same thing happens in words like “golden” and “needle”. They’re effectively consonant syllables. We can say them with a vowel, but we usually don’t, unless we’re talking to the Queen or went to a Swiss finishing school, or generally have tickets on ourselves and like to express this linguistically.
Now try saying the sounds “t”, “d”, “l” and “n” one after another, and thinking about where your tongue is. All four of these sounds require you to put your tongue tip on the little ridge behind your teeth, called the alveolar ridge.
Because your tongue is already in the right spot after a “t” or a “d” to say “l” and “n”, and because “l” and “n” are vowel-like consonants, after a “t” or “d”, we tend to just go straight into an “l” or “n” and use it as the last syllable, and not bother saying a vowel.
However, we still use a vowel letter when we spell these syllables (i.e. we don’t write “buttn”, “bottl”, “goldn” or “needl”), so unless a learner notices there is no vowel sound in these syllables, it’s probably not worth raising this yourself.
But once kids get very aware of sounds in words, they can ask some pretty tricky questions, so it’s good to be prepared. Also, it’s good to avoid grand generalisations like “every single English syllable, without exception, always has a vowel”. Saying stuff like that is just asking to be found out.
Consonant syllables with no vowel letter
Words like “prism” and “logarithm”, “sarcasm” and “feminism” (see a longer list here) have their last syllable spelt with a single “m”, with no vowel letter.
The sound “m” is made with both lips, and the other English sounds made in this location are “p” and “b”.
I can’t find any words that segue straight from “p” or “b” to a final-syllable “m”. Most of the words in this group end in “ism”.
When you move your mouth from saying the “s” in “ism” to saying the “m”, you can’t really help but say a little vowel sound. Vowels are, in simple terms, when you open your mouth/vocal tract, and consonants are when you close it down. Shifting from one consonant position to another while vocalising invariably involves a bit of opening your vocal tract, and thus vowel-saying.
The brains trust behind English spelling decided to spell these words ending with “m” with no vowel letter for etymological reasons, related to the spelling of what were originally Greek words. The “ism” from these then got tacked on as a suffix to additional words, like “alcohol” and “American”.
Teach patterns, not rules
Instead of telling learners that there is a hard-and-fast rule that every English syllable contains a vowel sound and a vowel spelling, try saying something like, “There are a few, longer words that have syllables that don’t contain a vowel sound or a vowel letter, but generally every word and every syllable has a vowel sound, which we write with a vowel spelling”.
Using a movable alphabet that has the vowels in one colour and the consonants in another can really help, because then you can say e.g. “you can’t usually have a word/syllable without an orange (vowel) spelling”.
However, the usual 26-letter movable alphabet set can confuse more than it helps, unless you know how to use it well, because many letters are used for both vowel and consonant spellings, e.g.
- “y” as in “yes” versus “y” as in “by”, “gym”, “baby”, “say”, “they” and “boy”,
- “r” as in “rat” versus “r” as in “car”, “her”, “sir”, “for” and “turn”,
- “w” as in “wet” versus “w” as in “saw”, “chew” and “cow”.
To really demonstrate all the patterns you need a movable alphabet that contains major spellings, not just letters, and has the vowel spellings in one colour and the consonants another, such as this one you can make yourself (as one mum said to me, “this is not just speech therapy, it’s craft!”).
If you don’t want to/can’t make your own, the Smartkids magnetic alphabets look reasonably good, though I don’t really understand their colour-coding, and they lump together digraphs (like “ck”, “ll” and “ng”, where two letters represent one sound) and blends (like “br”, “sm” and “nk”, where two letters represent two sounds), whereas I think we should be teaching blending, not blends (see this previous blog post for why).