The first syllables in words like “atom”, “centre”, “filter”, “shopping”, “rubbish” and “pullet” contain a “short” vowel, which must be followed by a consonant in English. These are sometimes called “closed” syllables.
The first syllables in words like “paper”, “being” “final”, “hoping”, “brutal” and “future” end with a “long” vowel, and are sometimes called “open” syllables.
Tackling one syllable at a time
When learners start reading and spelling multi-syllable words, it’s useful to get them to practice reading and writing words which contrast “closed” and “open” syllables.
In my Workbook 7 and Workbook 8, I break multisyllable words up using little dots, so that learners get to practice writing lots of different syllable types in multisyllable words before they have to figure out where the syllable boundaries are for themselves.
However, most of the students I work with are being encouraged to tackle long words at school well before they get up to my Workbook 7, so I’ve started introducing some input on tackling long words earlier, when they are studying vowel spellings in Workbooks 4 and 5.
Breaking up long words
We start off with compound words made out of words they can already spell, like “catfish”, “suntan”, “dishcloth”, “himself” and “uphill”.
This gets learners in the habit of stopping at the end of each syllable to blend, before proceeding on to the next syllable, and then putting the two syllables together. In compound words, both syllables are usually stressed and said as they are written – there are no complications from unstressed vowels/weak syllables.
Next, I ask learners to break up words that look similar, but some have a “closed” first syllable, and others have an “open first syllable e.g. “never” (nev-er) and “fever” (fe-ver).
The first step is to say each word one syllable at a time.
Many kids start clapping as soon as you mention the word “syllable”, and this can sometimes be helpful, but sometimes takes their attention away from what’s happening in their mouths. Anyway we together decide what each spoken syllable is, and if there is an unstressed vowel in the word (like the “er” in “butter” or the “ar” in “dollar”) I ask learners to pronounce it as it is spelt.
Sometimes it’s useful to give learners each word written on a little slip of paper, and ask them to cut it in half between the syllables, then copy the two syllables with a space between them.
This helps learners to eyeball each syllable in turn, and say it very crisply, eliminating the blurriness that too often seems to happen in word middles.
Alternatively, I ask learners to assemble each word in two chunks using my movable alphabet (I provide the necessary spellings), then copy it, then write it themselves, saying each syllable as they write.
In general terms, this is how multi-syllable words are tackled in the excellent Sounds Write program, but I use my movable alphabet instead of a post-it note for each grapheme, for what could variously be called recycling or stinginess reasons. I just use a post-it note when I need a spelling that’s not in my alphabet, like the ‘”ti” in “motion” or the “sc” in “science”.
Open and closed first syllable wordlist
Here’s a list of words which contrast initial open and closed syllables.
Sometimes there are a couple of ways a word can be segmented. I know there aren’t really two “n” sounds in “dinner” but when spelling it, I like to break up the doubled “n” and get learners to say “n” twice, to help them to remember to write both letters.
|letter||“closed” first syllable||“open” first syllable|
bassoon (bass-oon or bas-soon)
|i||bistro (bis-tro or bist-ro)
dinner (din-ner or dinn-er)
mobbing (mob-bing or mobb-ing)
rubbish (rub-bish or rubb-ish)
stubborn (stub-born or stubb-orn)
tunnel (tun-nel or tunn-el)
Of course I vary the wordlist depending on the age and likely vocabulary of the learner. I wouldn’t use a word like “fatwa” with a young child, or a word like “navman” with a learner who knew nothing about in-car GPS systems.
I hope you’ll find this list useful in teaching learners how to break words up into syllables, and would welcome any feedback on it.