I was 27 years old with 2 master’s degrees before I knew the 6 syllable types in English. If I made it that far without knowing them, you’d think it can’t actually matter, right? The reality is, though, that I was one of those children lucky enough that learning to read seemed effortless. Reading has never been a struggle for me. You might find yourself struggling to understand why we should waste our time teaching these skills. But for a child who doesn’t acquire the code as easily, learning the 6 syllable types and what that means for decoding can be the difference between a life as a reader or continuing to struggle.
Identifying the 6 Syllable Types:
In English, we have 6 syllable types. Open, closed, magic-e, r-controlled, vowel team, and consonant + le. Below, I offer a brief definition of each. What I always try to impress on my students is that all of the syllable types are organized by what is happening to the vowel. Is it long or short? Is it made by 2 vowels, or 1? Is it distorted in some way by the letters surrounding it? Understanding the vowel is essential to understanding syllables. The syllable types are organized around how to vowels work, so this is what we want to emphasize for our students.
Open Syllables: When a syllable ends in a single vowel, it is an open syllable. The vowel sound is long. (Ex: go, hi, robot, open)
Closed Syllables: When you have only one vowel, followed by one or more consonants in a syllable, it is a closed syllable. The vowel sound is short. (Ex: ask, stick, itch, it,)
Magic-e (Also called silent-e): When you add a silent e to the end of a closed syllable, it makes the vowel sound a long sound. (Ex: make, Pete, trike, stove)
R-controlled (Also called vowel-r syllable): When a vowel is followed by the letter r, it is an r-controlled syllable. The r distorts the sound of the vowel. (Ex: starve, hurt, bird, thorn)
Vowel-Team: When two vowels come together to make one sound, it is a vowel team. (Ex: chain, key, boat, green.)
Where to start instruction:
You can start teaching syllables explicitly in kindergarten. Just think, a CVC word is a basic closed syllable. Words that children are already reading like get, sip, tab, etc., are all closed syllables. Since students are already reading the words, let’s add intention to our instruction and teach the proper vocabulary of the syllable. Knowing this vocabulary from the beginning lays the foundation for decoding multisyllabic words in the future. You can also teach open syllables, using examples like hi, be, me, etc. One of the most popular ways I’ve seen to illustrate is with the actual opening and closing of a door to demonstrate those two syllable types.
Starting in first grade, I’d introduce magic-e. Many teachers also teach some beginning vowel teams in first. In second, we can begin r-controlled vowels by adding in /ar/ and /or/. I would hesitate to add er, ir, and ur at the same time you teach other r-controlled vowels. Ar and or have distinct sounds, while er, ir, and ur represent the same sound. The best way to teach is to start with er and let children know that it is the most common /er/ sound.
Second grade is also a great time for many vowel teams (ex: ai say /a/ in the middle, ay say s/a/ at the end, igh says /i. before a t, etc.) By third grade, students should be introduced to, familiar with, and able to identify all syllable types. I teach consonant + le as the last syllable type because it only appears in multi-syllabics words.
Teaching Syllable Divisions:
Once children know the 6 syllable types, we can move into teaching them how to decode multisyllabic words. We use the syllable division rules for this. Syllable division rules help students to identify the syllable type so that they can know what to do with the vowel sound. Below I offer a definition of each.
Tiger/Camel: When you have a vowel, consonant, vowel (VCV), you have to determine if that first syllable is open or closed. This rule teaches us that 70% of the time, tiger will win and you will have an open syllable, like in ti-ger. 30% of the time, you will have to close the syllable, like in cam-el. Have students practice flexing between open and closed syllables. (Ex: ca-ble, lem-on, fig-ure)
Rabbit: Rabbit is the easiest to teach and can be done as early as late kindergarten/first grade. Rabbit says that when you have a vowel, consonant, consonant, vowel, (VCCV) you split in between the consonants. (Ex: tamper, button, kitten, vanquish)
Turtle: Turtle is the consonant + le pattern. If you see a consonant + le in a word, it will always be a turtle rule. Turtle beats out all other rules. (Examples: cable, simple, puzzle)
Lion: If you have two vowels together that are not a vowel team, try lion. Lion states that if you have a vowel, vowel (VV), you split between the two vowels. This rule is not common.
You might wonder why we need to teach both the 6 syllable types and the syllable division rules. I struggled for a long time with the point of it. I’ve come to understand, however, that without knowing HOW to divide a word into syllables, students will still struggle to decode. When there are multiple syllables in a word, it can be challenging to know where it is split without explicit teaching.
Tools for teaching syllable divisions:
One of my favorite tools for teaching multisyllabic decoding are the SyllaBoards from Really Great Reading. They are tiny dry erase boards. I use these to make the syllable divisions more concrete. If I split the word “bacon” as “bac” “on” when using the boards, it is easy to see that it isn’t the correct syllable type. Using these boards has been a wonderful opportunity for children to easily see and correct their reading errors.
If you want some FREE FREE FREE syllable division resources, I have free posters and free worksheets in my TPT store. Click the picture or see the link in the resources section below. The Florida Center for Reading Research also has some incredible free resources I’ll link! One of my favorite syllable activities from FCRR is their syllable fluency sheets. They have 1-minute fluency practice for each of the 6 syllable types, plus a mixed syllable practice. These will always be a part of my instruction!
I wish I could lie to you and say this work is easy. It simply isn’t. What would make it easier is if school systems began to teach both the vocabulary and the knowledge of the 6 syllable types in kindergarten. If open and closed syllables were taught in kindergarten, and then each grade level took the responsibility for teaching the ones appropriate for their grade level, learning to decode multisyllabic words wouldn’t be so difficult.
Since we don’t live in a perfect world though, I’ll just say this: it’s worth the effort it takes. You may be the only person in your school who is teaching the syllable types. Hopefully, other people will join you, but for now don’t underestimate your worth. You are giving children powerful tools to help them read that will last long after they have left your classroom.
4. FCRR Free Resources. This is for second and third grade. Go to phonics, and there is a section for syllables!
Thank you Jennifer W. for allowing me to display your open/closed door. Thank you Rachel B. for your editing and friendship. 🙂