Syllable types provide an easy way to manage the dozens of word features presented in a typical spelling scope and sequence. So let's look at syllable types!
Usually, a spelling scope and sequence is organized loosely around the developmental stages of spelling and the word features associated with each stage. For example, the scope and sequences used with 1st graders, who are developing the ability to match letters to the sounds they hear, typically concentrate on CVC patterns, consonant blends, digraphs, and CVe patterns. In contrast, a scope and sequence for third graders, who are developing the ability to notice and use patterns in words, usually contains lessons on frequent and infrequent vowel sounds and spellings, inflectional endings (where plurals and tenses are formed), and special consonant spellings like soft c and soft g, as well as suffixes, prefixes and homophones. As the stages of spelling development progress, more and more spelling features are added. Take a minute to look over the scope and sequence of any spelling program, grades one to five, and you will see dozens of spelling features listed.
Because these many features are not organized into a few broad, easy to understand and teach categories, they can present real difficulties for both teachers and students. First, a weakly organized scope makes it harder for teachers to answer these questions: what features have my students mastered, which features need to be retaught, which features do my students have control of when they write, and which features are my students seeing and controlling when they decode as they read?
Second, when teachers have an overwhelming number of spelling features to think about, they may lose sight of these big picture reasons for teaching spelling: spelling is for building the brain dictionary, spelling is to enable fluent writing, spelling is for strengthening decoding, and so on.
Third, a focus on the minute details (dozens of features) gives teachers and students the false notion that English spellings are unruly, nonsensical, or impossible to predict. Finally, a weekly stream of loosely categorized features makes spelling harder for children to learn and teachers to teach. For example, if you were asked to teach third graders to recall, in any order, the numbers and letters of these two sets - [2, 7, 3, 5, 1, 6, 8, 4] and [B, e, h, T, e, h, C, n, g, e, a] –would it be easiest teach and remember them as unorganized strings of numbers and letters or would you teach them as organized groups: 2468-1357 and Be The Change? Obviously, the latter.
It pays to organize, through categorization, large sets of information into smaller subsets. Fortunately for us, a handy method for categorizing spelling exists. It’s called syllable types. Syllable types are an overarching instructional strategy. How so? They categorize all syllables into seven categories, thus reining in the number of spelling features and the breadth of a typical spelling scope and sequence. With only seven types of patterns to think about, your spelling instruction can be more focused and powerful. And when children master the knowledge and use of the syllable types, they have a master plan (a strategy) for decoding during reading and encoding during spelling.
I regularly talk with teachers who gush enthusiastically about using syllable types to teach phonics and spelling in their classrooms. I think we all get so excited about them because syllable types draw attention to all that lies at the heart of spelling: sound, pattern, and meaning. And when students’ attention is drawn to the heart of the matter, they are in a much better position to use strategies, to build a dictionary in their brains, and to become more fluent readers and writers.
Teaching spelling via syllable types drives home the encoding-decoding, spelling-reading connection. It allows you to completely align your phonics scope and sequence with your spelling scope and sequence. Equally important, it improves a struggling student’s ability to read and spell multisyllabic words because it is one tool (breaking words into syllables) that provides repeated practice in two areas, spelling (encoding) and reading (decoding).
One thing before I move on: Researchers and writers present differing views on spelling nomenclature. For example, some folks call ar, ir, and or patterns “vowel-r syllables,” while others call them “r-controlled syllables.” Likewise, there are differences in opinion about how to classify patterns such as ore (store) and air (stair). Are they r-controlled? Or is one a vowel-consonant-e syllable and the other a vowel team syllable? I mention differences of opinion because I present syllable types as seven in number, while spelling experts such as Louisa Moats and Barbara Wilson present them as six. But in the grand scheme of spelling and reading, these differences are minor. The important point is to organize spelling features into categories of syllable types and then teach them well, over time, in spelling, reading, and writing.
Teach what a syllable is
If you are going to organize your spelling around syllable types, I suggest you first teach what a syllable is. Begin with the idea that a syllable is a word or a part of a word that has at least one vowel in it. The vowel in every syllable causes your chin to drop when you say the vowel sound. Once your students have basic understanding of what a syllable is (a word or a word part that causes a chin to drop because it has at least one vowel in it), introduce the syllable types.
Variations on a theme
Of course, nothing is ever easy in teaching. For example, ind and ild are closed syllables, but they are exceptions to the rule because they make a long vowel sound (bind, find, mild, wild). For each syllable type, there are exceptions. Now you may be thinking, “Exceptions in each category? Spelling is so confusing!” While I cannot deny that exceptions add complexity to the simplicity of just seven syllable types, I would maintain that when you tell students “we are going to group all of our spelling patterns into seven basic types,” you have focused a sprawling topic, making it much easier to understand and making it much easier for children to notice commonalities and differences between its many parts.
To further illustrate this point, the figure below shows the thirty-seven high-frequency phonograms, often used by 1st grade teachers to teach phonics and spelling, grouped by syllable type. You can see how each falls into one of three syllable types: closed, VCe, and vowel team.
By the way, this sequence of syllable types – closed, VCe, and vowel team – is an appropriate sequence of instruction for students in grade one, keeping in mind that those who do not master the closed syllable type will need to be instructed until they do. Open syllables and r-controlled syllables can be added in the second grade sequence. By the end of third grade, students will be ready to begin to organize spelling words around all seven types.
Use syllable types across space and time
The seven categories of syllable types can be taught by teachers and used by students between and across grade levels. They give an entire school one organizing principal, thus providing a common language for all teachers of reading, writing, and spelling. At the same time, syllable types provide an organizing framework that all students can use to better understand the workings of spelling features in every spelling stage, from consonants, digraphs, and short vowels in the early alphabetic stage, to long vowel teams and variant vowel teams in the patterns within words stage, to roots, affixes, and inflected endings in the meaning stage.
It seems to me that any strategy, routine, or method of organization that crosses classrooms and grade levels holds forth the possibility of greater and longer lasting student learning. Simply put, when students experience and use a strategy, routine, or method year after year from a multitude of teachers, they are much more likely to master that strategy, routine, or method and consistently apply it in variety of settings. If a school were to embrace the teaching of syllable types, by the time students got to fourth grade they would have had three years of exposure to the this organizing principle, surely a strong foundation.
Even in the final stage of spelling development, where the focus is meaning rather than pattern, syllable patterns can still be referenced and explored. For example, the figure below shows how multisyllabic words are made up of combinations of syllable types. As syllable types are introduced over time – in a classroom, between classrooms, and between grades – students can explore longer and longer words made from a mixture of short syllable types. This exploration of and exposure to multisyllabic words increases their ability to successfully read and write hundreds, if not thousands of words.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.