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Why Readers have Problems:
Vowel Pronunciation and Syllable Types
and How They Relate to Reading
by Peggy Barzilay, PhD


As we begin each new school year, every English teacher is surprised to find a child who cannot read, or one that isn't making progress. In this column, one of Israel's remedial reading experts ... Peggy Barzilay, talks about one of the reasons why!

In this column:

The English vowel system can represent a major stumbling block to proficient reading. Despite this fact, many teachers are unaware of the relationship between vowel pronunciation and syllable type and therefore, seldom discuss this all-important subject with their students. This is unfortunate, because knowledge of syllable types provides invaluable insights as to how vowels within words are pronounced. Although there will also be exceptions to these insights, this does not detract from their potential for making life immeasurably easier for beginning readers.

What is a syllable?

Before introducing the concept of syllable types, the concept of the syllable has to be discussed. Some children may have problems with this. For them, it is best to present syllabification through rhythm and clapping, using the names of the children themselves. Normally a quick demonstration is enough for most pupils.

For example: Your name is Dan. Her name is Margalit. Dan has one syllable (Clap to illustrate.) Margalit has three syllables,

For others, the following generalizations can be used:
  1. A syllable is the smallest unit into which a word can be broken. Sometimes it forms a word in itself (mar/ket, go, it, see).
  2. A syllable has one vowel sound. This is important for students to remember since syllables or short words can have more than one written vowel and still have only one vowel sound. For example, the word coal is a one syllable word with two vowels but only one vowel sound, the long /o/, is actually heard.
  3. A syllable is produced by one push of breath.

Short and long vowels

Once the concept of the syllable is understood, long and short vowels have to be introduced.
Students should be told that according to convention, the 5 vowel letters in English (a,e,i,o,u) represent a minimum of at least two different sounds, one called long and the other, short. The long sound of each vowel says its name (bike = /i/), while the short vowel sounds have to be taught:

a says /a/ as in cat
e says /e/ as in Eddy
i says /i/ as in in
o says /o/ as in orange
u says /u/ as in umbrella

Normally, a half circle is placed above short vowels and a straight line appears above long vowels. These diacritical marks should be taught as they appear in dictionaries and will make classroom discussions easier.

Basic Syllable Types

After long and short vowels have been introduced, syllable types can be discussed. How and where a particular syllable type is introduced will depend on the students, their level and their reading material. However, under normal circumstances, closed syllables, followed by open syllables should be introduced first because basic reading texts are normally made up of a relatively high proportion of closed, one syllable words.

There are six basic syllable types:
  1. closed syllable
  2. open syllable
  3. magic e syllable
  4. consonant + le syllable
  5. r controlled syllable .
  6. double vowel syllable

  1. Closed syllable
    The closed syllable ends in one or more consonants and has one vowel before it. (e.g. van / an).
    The vowel in closed syllables is normally short. This can effect both reading and spelling. For example: because we know that vowels in closed syllables are short, when we see the word cat, we immediately know that the a says short /a/, and therefore we have the word cat, not Kate.

    One important sub-category of the closed syllable, which occasionally confuses students, is made-up of words ending in ind (find), olt (colt) or old (cold). These words can be treated as a word family. Tell students that although these words look like closed syllables, the vowels in them usually say their name. There are some exceptions however. For example, the word wind can be pronounced two different ways and mean two different things.

  2. The open syllable ends in a vowel and the vowel says its name. e.g. she, go, mu/sic.

  3. The magic e syllable has the following structure: vowel + consonant + silent e (vCe). Although the e at the end of the syllable is silent, because it is there, the vowel preceding the consonant is pronounced as a long sound. Thus the vowel in the word like is long and says its name.

  4. consonant + le
    The consonant + le or regular final syllable, as its name implies, ends in the letters -le preceded by a consonant. The letter 'e' is silent.

    This combination of letters (consonant + le) can not be divided, which has implications both for reading and spelling. For example, if a student wants to spell the word apple, he has to be told to listen to the vowel which comes immediately before the consonant +le combination. If the vowel sound is short but there is another consonant before the consonant + -le combination, (can/dle) there is no problem. The word is divided before the consonant + le and what is left, (can) is a closed syllable (short vowel). However, if this vowel is short, and there is no consonant before the consonant + le combination, then the consonant in the consonant +le combination must be doubled. In other words, the student hears [a/pl]. Because of the 'pl' combination at the end of the word, the student should know two things:

    a) he has to add the letter 'e' at the end of the consonant combination, and
    b) he has to double the consonant in the consonant +le combination.

    The 'p' in apple has to be doubled to close the syllable, thus keeping the vowel sound short. If the 'p' were not doubled, the student would have a two syllable word, a/ple and the first syllable would be an open syllable which would says its name.

    On the other hand, if the vowel sound before the consonant is long, there is no need to double it. For example, there is no need to double the f in the word rifle, because this word is divided ri/fle, the first syllable is open and says its name.

    From a reading point of view, it is much easier. Since students have been taught that the consonant + le can not be divided, they have to divide before the consonant. Ap/ple is a two syllable word. The first syllable ends in a consonant and is therefore a closed syllable and the vowel within it is short. If however, the word was ri/fle, the syllable before the regular final syllable (the ri) ends in a vowel and therefore, the vowel says its name.

  5. r controlled
    The r controlled syllable contain a vowel + r combination: ar, er, ir, ur, or. These combinations constitute a separate syllable type because the presence of the r effects the quality of the vowel which precedes it.

    a) er, ir, and ur are normally pronounced /er/ as in (bird, turn).
    b) ar is normally pronounced /ar/ as in car, and
    c) or is pronounced /or/ as in Ford.

    Note however that when the letter 'w' preceded an ar word, the 'ar' combination is normally pronounced /or/ as in war/warden. If the 'w' precedes an 'or' word, than the 'or' is normally pronounced /er/ as in word.

  6. Double vowel
    The double vowel syllable contains two vowels but only one vowel sound is heard: boat, feed, out.

    The double vowel syllable is the most complex of all syllable types because the double vowel combination can represent more than one sound. For example, oy or oi say /oi/.

    However, the 'ea' combination can represent three different sounds: the long /e/ sound as in beat, the short /e/ sound as in treasure, and the long /a/ sounds as in the word great.

    Double vowels should be introduced as they appear in the material students read. For example, if a beginning student comes across the word boat in one of his/her texts, it's enough to tell them that this is a new syllable type and the 'oa' says /o/. More information will be provided as they come across other double vowel words or syllables.

Table of vowel combinations

The following table* divides vowel combinations according to the number of pronunciations they have and how accurate these pronunciations are.

One Sound:
Ay = /a/play 96.4%
Oa = /o/coat 95%
Ee = /e/feet 95.9%
Ai = /a/rain 75%
Ey = /e/key 77%
Aw = /aw/saw 100%
Oy = /oi/boy 100%
Oi = /oi/join 100%
Au = /aw/cause 78.9%

Two Sounds:
Ow = /o/ snow 68%
         /au/ how 31.9 %
ew = /oo/blew 88.3%
         /u/ few 18.7%
oo = /oo/ boot 50%
         /u/ book 40.4 %
ei = /a/ eight 50%
         /e/ either 25%
ie* = /e/ field 49%
         /i/ tied 27.2%
There are only 12 words which use the long /i/ sound. This can be introduced on a Word family card: lie, die, tie, pie, untie, necktie, belie, magpie, tie, fie = shame, vie = struggle, enter competition, hie = speed

Three Sounds:
Ea = /e/ seat 49.6%
         /e/ head 16.7%
         /ear/ fear 14.3%
ou = /au/ out 43.2%
         /u/ touch 17.8%
         /or/ your 7%
oe = /o/ toe 44.4%
         /oo/ shoe 33.3%
         /u/ does 22.2%

One of the major problems in learning how to read is deciding how to pronounce the vowel within words. Vowel pronunciation is problematic because of the number of possibilities the student has to choose from. The knowledge of syllable types will not provide all the answers. There will always be exceptions to these generalizations. Nevertheless, teaching children about syllable types will go a long way toward solving the vowel pronunciation problem and making students lives easier.

* Table appears in the journal, Reading Teacher, 2001, by B Johnson.
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