On Eating Elephants and Teaching Syllabication

  • syllabication decoding phonics
  • 13 March, 2021

Teacher Question:

What are your thoughts on teaching syllable division patterns? I recently came across some new research from Devin Kearns and it made me start thinking about if all the time programs spend teaching syllable division patterns is really justified. If teaching syllable division is not time well invested, what type of instruction would you recommend replacing it with? 

Shanahan response:

I was training for a 500-mile bike trip. Three of the days’ rides would be centuries (100 miles plus). The practice was making my back ache and my knees hurt, but I felt no closer to being able to accomplish those distances. They seemed absolutely impossible. I was so discouraged I I wanted to drop out; there is no shame in knowing your limitations.

But I didn’t quit. I pedaled all 500 miles and was even charging at the end.

What turned things around? I had an epiphany. It dawned on me that I would never be able to pedal 100 miles and that no one else could either. That realization made all the difference. You see, though I couldn’t ride a century, I could easily ride 10 miles. So, to reach my goal, I just had to ride 10 miles 10 times.

If you look at the productivity literature – how to solve complex problems or take on overwhelming challenges – the idea of “decomposition” comes up a lot. The experts say if you want to do something hard break the problem into smaller parts.

That, fundamentally, is the idea of syllabication in decoding. When you confront multi-syllable words, it may help to break them into smaller parts.

It’s kind of like that old joke:

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

That may seems pretty sensible, but where do you bite?

That’s the problem when it comes to splitting up English words. It isn’t always clear how to divide things and what do you with the vowels once you have bite size chunks?

Syllables matter in English. The consistency of spelling patterns and their relationship to phonemes and pronunciations is determined, in part, by where particular letters appear in syllables rather than where they appear in words (Venezky, 1967), and the perception of vowel sounds (the central element of the syllable) is key to successful early phonemic awareness development (Linnea Ehri has described the perception of the syllable as paving “the way for entre into benefiting from phonics instruction”). The syllable has been found to be an essential unit in phonological processing (Ecalle & Magnan, 2007). In other words, syllables are pretty basic.

I, too, read the Kearns study (Kearns, 2020). You seem to think it says something about whether to teach syllables. I don’t see it that way (a close reading of the study suggests Kearns doesn’t either – and his other work confirms that (Kearns & Whaley, 2019)). Remember Kearns only examined a single category of syllabication patterns (a group governing the pronunciation of single vowels). He found a high degree of reliability in VCCV words (such as rab-bit) and a reasonable degree of consistency in VCV words of two syllables (though that division rule didn’t do so well with longer words). He also reported that there were particular spellings with highly reliable pronunciations within that universe of words (such as “ic” and “wa”). And, that still leaves us with all of the other kinds of syllables such as sion, tion, ble, or a raft of common morphological units that operate consistently as syllables in our language (e.g., un, pre, trans, pro, ing, ed). None of these were the focus of his analysis.

I take it that Kearns was just reminding us that simplistic approaches to decoding instruction that encourage students to expect a simple and consistent set of pronunciation rules would be a poor reflection of the facts of the English spelling system.

Students need to develop a mental set for diversity or variability when it comes to word recognition. Teaching syllabication as a rigid set of “rules” makes no sense, since our orthography doesn’t work like that. Telling students that VCV patterns are to be divided after the first vowel may benefit the reading of words like label or tiger, but it plays hob with words such as statue.

We must remember that the sounding out of words is only intended to provide readers with approximate – rather than exact – pronunciations anyway. It may be possible to determine that the word is statue if you starts with “stay-tue” but it would be infinitely more likely if “stat” was the starting point.

The solution to that problem isn’t proscribing syllabication training, but to make it more conditional (studies like that by Kearns can be useful for informing those curriculum choices). In any event, it is wisest to tell budding readers that when beavering away at an unknown word with that VCV pattern, they should try splitting the word both before and after the consonant, trying out at least a couple of the high probability pronunciation possibilities (there are more choices than those two, with schwa being a frequent culprit – Rosemary Weber (2018) provides an interesting analysis of the role of the schwa in word perception). 

As I’ve written many times before, we can’t determine what works in teaching through descriptive studies of the brain or language. Such studies may help explain why some instructional approaches work or provide valuable insights about new pedagogical possibilities. But they can’t reveal what works – which is what any real science of reading instruction ultimately needs to be about.

There aren’t a huge number of instructional studies to go on, and some of those found that syllable teaching didn’t work. However, an insightful analysis of these studies (Bhattacharya & Ehri, 2004) sorts this out nicely: Those regimes that taught rigid spelling rules for syllabication didn’t improve reading, while those that aimed at fostering conditionality and flexibility in the use of syllables to decode words did significantly better. Also, since that time, syllable instruction studies have been consistently positive in their results (Diliberto, Beattie, Flowers, & Algozzine, 2009; Doignon-Camus & Zagar, 2014; Ecalle, Kleinsz, & Magnan, 2013; Ecalle & Magnan, 2007; Gray, Ehri, & Locke, 2018).

Your letter makes it sound as if teachers spend a lot of time teaching syllabication. I doubt that and hope it isn’t the case. In studies that found syllabication instruction to improve word recognition and reading comprehension, students received only 2-9 hours of teaching (yeah, even 2 hours of syllable training was beneficial).

Given all of this, I would definitely teach syllabication. It clearly has value. Though the amount of such teaching can be pretty limited. Nevertheless, decoding instruction is not primarily or mainly about teaching students to sound out words. Such teaching, if successful, must instigate readers to perceive patterns and conditionalities within words (that’s what orthographic mapping and statistical learning are all about).

So, yes, teach syllabication, but expose kids to the exceptions and teach them to use these divisions conditionally and flexibly. Approach words both through decoding and spelling (see Richard Gentry’s fine work on this). Focus considerable attention on the morphological units within words as well (for this I turn to the book Words Their Way, and to Peter Bowers’ WordWorks Literacy Centre.)

Please pass the elephant.


Bhattacharya, A., & Ehri, L. C. (2004). Graphosyllabic analysis helps adolescent struggling readers read and spell words. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37(4), 331-348. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.1177/00222194040370040501

Diliberto, J. A., Beattie, J. R., Flowers, C. P., & Algozzine, R. F. (2009). Effects of teaching syllable skills instruction on reading achievement in struggling middle school readers. Literacy Research and Instruction, 48(1), 14-27. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.1080/19388070802226253

Doignon-Camus, N., & Zagar, D. (2014). The syllabic bridge: The first step in learning spelling-to-sound correspondences. Journal of Child Language, 41(5), 1147-1165. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.1017/S0305000913000305

Ecalle, J., Kleinsz, N., & Magnan, A. (2013). Computer-assisted learning in young poor readers: The effect of grapho-syllabic training on the development of word reading and reading comprehension. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1368-1376. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.1016/j.chb.2013.01.041

Ecalle, J., & Magnan, A. (2007). Development of phonological skills and learning to read in French. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 22(2), 153-167. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.1007/BF03173519

Gray, S. H., Ehri, L. C., & Locke, J. L. (2018). Morpho-phonemic analysis boosts word reading for adult struggling readers. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31(1), 75-98. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.1007/s11145-017-9774-9

Kearns, D.M. (2020). Does English have useful syllable division patterns? Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S145– S160. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.342

Kearns, D. M., & Whaley, V. M. (2019). Helping students with dyslexia read long words: Using syllables and morphemes. Teaching Exceptional Children, 51(3), 212–225. https://doi.org/10.1177/0040059918810010

Venezky, R. L. (1967). English orthography: Its graphical structure and its relation to sound. Reading Research Quarterly, 2(3), 75–105. https://doi.org/10.2307/747031

Weber, R. (2018). Listening for schwa in academic vocabulary. Reading Psychology, 39(5), 468-491. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.cc.uic.edu/10.1080/02702711.2018.1464531


See what others have to say about this topic.

Alex Sam Nov 08, 2021 09:14 AM

i have clear all my doubts related to syllables after reading this wonderfull article thnks for providing a simple understanding article...

lishu Nov 08, 2021 09:17 AM

thnks for such a wonderful article on syllable count

Kathy Pettibone Mar 13, 2021 06:46 PM

The most effective program I have used to teach morphemes and syllabication is SIPPS Challenge. I’ve used it as a classroom and intervention teacher. Flexibility with English syllables is the cornerstone; Latin and Greek roots are included as well as sight syllables like -tion. It’s best used as a brief lesson before grappling with text.

Scott Mar 13, 2021 06:59 PM

The analogy in this situation sets up your poor assessment of syllables. A better analogy would be if you were walking instead of riding a bike to try and accomplish the century rides. Before they even make it 10 yards the kids fall off the bike because you never taught them how to ride. If you teach syllable division you aren’t teaching how the system actually works you are telling kids the pedals go one way sometimes and the opposite others. Kearns says as much but this pick and choose how to interpret is pretty stale.

Anonymous Mar 13, 2021 07:07 PM

I worked with a small group of fourth graders a few years ago who struggled with very basic decoding. I realized that everyday in their classrooms, they were going to encounter multisyllabic words and it was imperitive that I teach them basic phonics along with skills to decode these grade-level words. I began teaching them how to decode cvc nonsense words that were parts of real multisyllabic words and as we progressed through mastering all the phonics rules which they hadn't known, we continuously would apply these to words that were broken down into syllables. Exactly to your point in the article, I taught them how to "play" with some multisyllabic words until the student recognized it: I can't think of any examples at the moment but it will come to me later. I first encountered this way of solving words while learning how to read Japanese on signs in Japan. For example, I read in Katakana (one of the three ways to write words in Japanese, katakana used for adopted foreign words) jya-ke-tto ( in English, something like ja-kay-toe) and I might have to "play with the word", repeat it say faster and faster, until I realize the work is jacket. All of the students enjoyed this work, it was like a game to them, and by the end of the school year, they were able to tackle successfully longer and unfamiliar words that they would see in their grade level textbooks and on tests through our thorough work in learning syllable types. Of course we worked on all reading skills (phonemic awareness, comprehension, etcetera) as well, but my comments are focused on the article here.

Jill Barshay Mar 13, 2021 07:15 PM

Have I been mispronouncing statue my whole life? Before this explanation, I had always divided statue into the syllables of sta-CHOO, more or less following the same pattern as label and tiger. I suppose it's never too late to learn how to decode properly. I always enjoy reading your blog on reading research.

Erin Harrington Mar 13, 2021 07:44 PM

I'm wondering if you could clarify this statement: "Syllables matter in English because they’re the basic orthographic unit that governs the consistency of our system of spelling (Venezky, 1967)"

Syllables are not an orthographic unit in English, and Venezky doesn't claim they are. He talks quite a bit about morphophonemes in the 1967 article, but very little about syllables.

This earlier statement also seems counter to your later point that "Teaching syllabication as a rigid set of “rules” makes no sense, since our orthography doesn’t work like that."

Harriett Mar 13, 2021 07:54 PM

The point about 'approximate pronunciations' is key. I think Jill's question goes to the heart of what I do with my struggling readers so that I don't place too much of a cognitive load on them when tackling multisyllabic words, which means I simply keep 'flexible' or 'approximate' pronunciations front and center. If my students blend the basic sounds in s-t-a-t (stat) and have learned the 'ue' spelling for /oo/--AND have actually got the word 'statue' as part of their vocabulary--they can play with the sounds in the syllables they've initially decoded (stat-ue) and listen for a word they know, ultimately (hopefully) pronouncing it as 'sta-tue' which is how they naturally would say it. I really do think that this flexibility is crucial.

LEX Mar 13, 2021 08:23 PM

A syllable is not an orthographic unit in English. Orthographic units in English include graphemes and morphemes, but not syllables. While some languages do have syllabic orthographies, English is not one of them. This is because English is a stress-timed language, not a syllable-timed language. Even if big-name salesmen and women promote syllable-based pedagogies for English, that doesn't change the facts that (a) such pedagogies falsely represent the structure of English, (b) such pedagogies often actively obscure real orthographic structures like graphemes and morphemes, (c) pedagogical syllable models are not supported by human data from native speakers, and (d) there is no empirical evidence supporting syllable pedagogies, and ample counter-evidence for them.

Facts, not silly anecdotes about bicycling, is what teachers are craving. They can get it here: https://linguisteducatorexchange.com/product/making-sense-of-syllables-cooke-2011/

LEX Mar 13, 2021 08:25 PM

Here's an entry in the International Encyclopedia of Linguistic Anthropology that will help you understand what an orthography actually is:


Ann Staman Hollingworth Mar 14, 2021 01:22 PM

I spend so much time teaching syllable types to beginning readers that we rarely get to syllabication before the student doesn't need me anymore. But, with the adult dyslexic/dyspraxic I have taught for over a decade, Nancy Lewkowicz's approach to reading longer words has been the most profitable: Count backwards from the final syllable to see which syllable to stress. https://www.amazon.com/Word-Workout-Nancy-K-Lewkowicz/dp/0985734914

Timothy Shanahan Mar 14, 2021 01:50 PM


You're correct that Dick didn't talk much about syllables in that article, though in the methodology of his analysis words were divided into syllables to analyze the consistency of the letter-sound relations... that was because those consistencies only really work within syllables (not within words)... something he often spoke about. But that doesn't mean that he describe English orthography as being a simple one-to-one letter-phoneme relationship... He was the first to describe the important morphological features of the orthography and was a strong proponent of the idea that readers had to develop a mental set for variability.



Timothy Shanahan Mar 14, 2021 02:02 PM

You are correct that the syllable is a controversial idea in linguistics, in spite of its usefulness in pedagogy. I'm not sure why you are so angry, but good luck to you.


Sr.Frances Cullen Mar 14, 2021 04:55 PM

You don't seem to have come across the "Nessy" Learn to read & spell programme. I've used it succesfully for 4 years now. Devised for Dyslexics & other SEND juniors, my Secondary EAL, Dyslexic ASD & more complexedly disadvantaged students have enjoyed its amusing approach.

Liz Hansen Mar 14, 2021 06:57 PM

I have used Kendore Learning's approach to teaching syllable types as a part of decoding, teaching flexing and varibility around breaking words into syllables and it has been very successful. The order of teaching and order of breaking Jennifer teaches is the total opposite to each other but results in a system less complicated for tier 2 and 3 readers to use.

Mary Mar 15, 2021 03:59 PM

A very popular program teaches people to flex vowel sounds by saying their name, sound or schwa. It also teaches kids to play with the accent. I also remember a researcher saying that the bigger words become, the more regular they are. Of course, you would explicitly teach common affixes (e.g., tious), since many cannot be sounded out. All in all, this has been a very positive approach used by one of the most well known reading intervention programs in the country.

Jacynthe Turgeon Mar 16, 2021 02:01 PM

Merci pour ce billet fort instructif!

Mardi Loeterman Mar 16, 2021 03:01 PM

Thanks for this. I work with severely dyslexic middle school students, and syllabication has been our bugaboo. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I really like the concept of conditionality. It’s a challenging concept for students with language-based learning disabilities, but we are starting to do it and I hope it will yield good results.

Donna Bales Mar 16, 2021 03:09 PM

I teach 4th grade to a group of very struggling students. I am encouraged that we use the “Words Their Way” book. We also use a program “FUNdamentals”. The current pandemic and remote learning has not helped with teaching phonics or how to read multi-syllable words! I am researching how to teach students that cannot read fluently how to write! Any suggestions?

Tim Shanahan Mar 17, 2021 01:39 AM


Je vous en prie.


J.B. Apr 05, 2021 12:53 AM

Dear Tim,

Can you respond to the critique that Lex shared? I read the questions and now I am curious. Especially in an era where social media aims to advertise curriculum which may or may not be useful, I think conversations among professionals are instrumental for teachers who are here to learn. I have experience with syllable instruction, but I wonder if morphophonemic analysis is a better use of time when studying English orthography, both for decoding and encoding?

I am a teacher trying to learn more so I can do better for my students, so:

do you have a rebuttal to the Lex's comments (points a, b, and c), or did you dismiss it on purpose, and if so, why?

Lori Josephson Mar 20, 2021 11:45 AM


A couple of thoughts:
1-for students to even entertain and generalizations about syllable division, they need to have a modicum of competence decoding single syllable word with accuracy--typically short vowels (and hence Closed Syllables) are taught first since they are the most common. Approximately half of all syllables in English contain closed syllables.
2-The main importance of knowing a syllable type (closed v. open syllable type) is this: the syllable type determines the vowel sound (closed=short vowel; open and v-e=long vowel sound). This is huge for many students.
3-I SO agree with the notions of conditionality and flexibility when dividing words into syllables--some readers may be familiar with the "bunny rabbit/pony" generalization: the words 'bunny' and 'rabbit' have 2 consonants between the vowels; hence the split in between and the first syllable is closed and has a short vowel; the reason for the double consonant is precisely to tell the reader that the preceding vowel is short. A bit more: in cases of words such as 'pony', when there is 1 consonant between the vowel, that is a signal to the reader to divide the syllable after the first vowel thereby making the first vowel long-- 'try' to decode the first vowel long--and if that does not 'work' or reveal a common word, then the reader is to 'try' dividing after the first consonant, thereby making the first vowel short. Here is the flexibility--try it both ways. That said, many more words follow the 'pony' division in English to the tune of 80%. I think the confusion often comes because students are exposed to more closed syllables and closed syllable instruction. I often found myself telling the teachers I trained "closed syllables are the base ten of the English language and all the other syllables are taught in comparison to them." I still believe this is true and still believe in teaching those rules of syllable division. The punchline I have heard from both students and teachers is this: "Why didn't anybody teach me this before? It makes so much sense."

Your thoughts?

One more addendum: Once students have traveled some distance down the 'road to reading', teaching morphological units complements the teaching of syllable types. For example, if a student is familiar with basic prefixes of 'un', 'con', 'sub', 'ex', 'pre', 're', etc., the student will know to decode these as units. The same would be true of Latinate roots and Greek combined forms: 'cred'=to believe, so when decoding words such as 'credit', 'incredible' or 'incredulous', it would be best for the reader to maintain the short vowel sound when she attempts to decode the word--and the bonus of knowing that all of the mentioned words would have something to do with 'believing'.

Ashley Derouen Apr 13, 2022 09:54 PM

When we break things into smaller sizes, we can accomplish more when trying to take in all at once.

Dick Briggs Feb 06, 2023 12:50 PM

While tutoring, I struggled with teaching the 6 syllable rules. Having a strong computer programming background, I wondered if an interactive program could be developed. The primary reason for teaching syllabication is to have a student decode a word that they have not seen. Did a little digging for a draft I'm writing for my solution.

In Glushko’s ( 1979) research, he identified three kinds of orthographic rules: 1) rules as
linguistic descriptions; 2) rules as knowledge of language structure and 3) rules as procedures or
mechanisms of pronunciation (p. 675). Even as Glushko documents these three rules, he states
that his rules have little use when the reader encounters a word for the first time. The same
statement could apply to Ishikawa’s three factors. That is, if a reader sees a word for the first
time, they have no clues as to where the stress is applied, what the vowel sound is for certainty,
or if the consonant is liquid, nasal, obstruent or other. Note: Glushko’s statement regarding that
when first exposed to a new word, the student has very few clues. This statement is the central
purpose for this investigation and development of a visual trigger for syllable junctures.

Based off this, I created an interactive tool, 5 Fingers and SPORGLE Syllables. http://3clicksspelling.com/Syllables/Tier_Syllables_Home.html

Here is a YouTube describing the tool. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wffAg4EYd8k

Let me know if you would be interested in reviewing my draft document.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

On Eating Elephants and Teaching Syllabication


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.