Have you ever felt intimidated by a big project or goal? Have you become comfortable in the suburbs filled with one- and two-story buildings only to become confused and turned around while driving or walking through the downtown streets of a major metropolis? In both cases, the big and overwhelming experiences can be broken into smaller steps to make the projects and goals, even traversing downtown streets, more manageable.
Perhaps you can relate to reading in a similar way. Imagine you’re reading an article recommended by a friend, and you stumble across a long and unfamiliar word. Perhaps the word is out of context and caught you off guard leaving you momentarily puzzled. Unfortunately, you may not have the option to phone a friend or poll an audience, so how do you figure it out?
For those readers stranded in the downtown metropolis, decoding strategies can provide the keys to reading and the road map to navigate increasingly complex and engaging texts.
To decode phonetic words, readers need prior knowledge of the individual syllable types, perhaps taught in monosyllabic (single-syllable words) prior to reading them in longer words. As readers approach an unfamiliar multisyllabic phonetic word, they may apply strategies to break the longer word into manageable chunks, called syllables. Syllable division patterns guide readers in this process and they’re taught in order of their frequency of use in English. Once words are cut into syllables, the six syllable types will help readers identify how to pronounce each syllable.
Syllable Type 1: Closed
A closed syllable is read with a short vowel sound when a single vowel is followed, or closed in, by a consonant in the same syllable. These syllables are extremely common in English, and the short vowel sounds are the first vowels taught. In words, such as cat, dog, red, and cup, the vowel is closed in and, therefore, is pronounced with a short vowel.
Syllable Type 2: Open
An open syllable is read with a long vowel sound when a single vowel is not followed or closed in by another letter in the same syllable. Every single vowel in English says its name in an open syllable, as in go, hi, we, and she.
Syllable Type 3: Magic E (VCe)
Magic E is a silent “e” that magically empowers the preceding single vowel to say its name. In words like bike, pole, cute, and bathe, the Magic E jumps back over a consonant sound, and the word (or syllable) is pronounced with a long vowel sound.
Syllable Type 4: Vowel Teams
A vowel team is a vowel sound represented by two to four letters, including ‘ea’ as /ē/ in meat (long vowel sound E) or /ĕ/ in bread (short vowel sound e), ‘ow’ as /ō/ in grow (long vowel sound O) or /ow/ in town (a diphthong vowel sound), or “igh” as /ī/ in night (long vowel sound I). Teachers empower students to efficiently read and spell by introducing the most common vowel teams first, such as the six VTs which spell long vowel sounds: ea, ee, ai, ay, oa, & oe. Then, once students demonstrate mastery, teachers may introduce additional vowel teams.
It is imperative that teachers continually discuss how to articulate phonemes (sounds) because vowel teams can spell long vowel sounds, short vowel sounds, and most diphthong vowel sounds. A diphthong (Greek for “two sounds”) is a gliding monosyllabic vowel sound, and students may feel the diphthong’s gliding movement by placing their fingers on the cheek next to the corners of their mouth to feel the slight muscle “glide” as they say the sound, like /ow/ as heard in out. Some programs pull out diphthongs as an additional syllable type.
Syllable Type 5: Bossy R
When an “r” follows a vowel sound, as in verb or far, it attempts to control the preceding vowel’s sound. In doing so, readers and spellers encounter an entirely new vowel sound. Teachers must clarify the sound of the “r” in isolation compared with the bossy r, or r-controlled, vowel sounds.
Syllable Type 6: Consonant-le
The final syllable type, consonant-le, occurs at the ends of words in English. Because every syllable has a vowel sound, the silent e at the end of this syllable signals readers to its pronunciation. For example, when table is enunciated, the -ble syllable may be reflected as /b(ǝ)l/ with an unpronounced schwa vowel sound. When reading a word that ends in a consonant-le syllable, readers may circle the syllable.
Syllable Pattern #1 VC/CV
The most common syllable division pattern is recognized by two or more consonants between two vowel sounds, including VCCV, VCCCV, VCCCCV. Consider the following words:
- hiccup – The two vowels are ‘i’ and ‘u’, and there are two consonants between the vowels. Pattern #1 cuts the word apart as hic / cup.
- bathtub – The two vowels, ‘a’ and ‘u’, have three consonants between them. Pattern #1 cuts the word apart as bath / tub.
- instruct – The two vowels, ‘i’ and ‘u’, have four consonants between them. Pattern #1 cuts the words apart as in / struct
“When there are more than two consonants together [between the vowels], and to simplify [decoding] for students, [the] main goal is to determine which blends stay together, and underline those blends as one consonant.” (IMSE Comprehensive Training Manual). Additionally, readers can keep digraphs together and underline them as one consonant unit.
Syllable Pattern #2 V/CV
The second most common syllable division pattern is recognized by VCV, with only one consonant between two vowel sounds in a word. Because of its frequency in English multisyllabic words, when readers encounter a VCV pattern, this pattern directs them to cut the word apart after the first vowel. Consider the following word:
- robot – The two vowels, ‘o’ and ‘o’, have one consonant between them. Pattern #2 cuts the words apart as ro / bot.
Syllable Pattern #3 VC/V
Readers may attempt to read a word using pattern #2 and not recognize it in their oral language lexicon. When pattern #2 doesn’t result in a familiar word, perhaps something else is happening. Often, the “something else”, is pattern #3 where the word cuts apart after the consonant between the two vowel sounds. This pattern is the second choice because, in English, it’s less common. Therefore, readers should have ample opportunity to apply patterns #1 and #2 before this pattern is introduced. Consider the following word:
- cabin – The two vowels, ‘a’ and ‘i’, have one consonant between them, so the reader tries pattern #2, initially, and reads ca / bin. While searching words known in their oral language and prior listening, reading, and speaking experiences, the word doesn’t make sense. Then, the reader suspects pattern #3 could be at work, and they adjust how the word is cut apart and reads cab / in.
Syllable Pattern #4 V/V
This final pattern used to cut words apart in English has two vowels with no consonants between them, and it is the least common of the four patterns. Typically introduced once diphthong vowels sounds are taught, readers continue to test the pattern and resulting pronunciation against known words in their oral language. Consider the following words:
- flower – The two vowels (vowel sounds), ‘ow’ and ‘er’, do not have any consonant sounds between them, and the reader cuts pattern 4 and read flow / er.
- rodeo – The first two syllables cut apart using pattern #2, and the second and third syllables cut apart using pattern 4. The reader decodes ro / de / o.
Once syllable division patterns (ways to cut words apart) and syllable types (guides to pronunciation) are learned, it’s as if every reader has the map to discover reading longer phonetic words. When the strategies are applied more skillfully and automatically, the landscape of reading is widened, varied, and accessible. Readers are able to focus on fluency strategies and vocabulary which support reading comprehension.
Moats, Louisa C., and Carol A. Tolman. LETRS: Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. 3rd ed., vol. 1 2, Voyager Sopris Learning, Inc., 2019.