I walked into a classroom last week and had an opportunity to really and truly understand how breaking words into syllables does not help students learn spelling. Let me explain.
The lesson was focused on the base word <male/mal>. There were 10 words written on the board and they were all divided into syllables to aid in pronunciation. I asked if pronunciation or meaning was the most important thing this teacher wanted her students to know about these words. She said meaning. I tried then to point out that by breaking the words into syllables, she had disguised the word parts (morphemes) that HAD meaning.
Here’s an example using the word <malevolent>. The syllable breakdown on the board was <ma + lev + o+ lent>. So how hard have we as teachers just made it for the students to recognize that one of the base words here is <mal> which means bad … or that the other one is <vol> which means will?
Instead of a syllabic breakdown I would suggest an orthographic word sum that looks like this: <mal> + <e> + <vol> + <ent>. In an orthographic word sum, the word is separated into morphemes (a word part with meaning that cannot be made smaller).
With this kind of examination, the students will learn several things. First, once they have researched this word, they will find the meaning of it — not just the general meaning, but the meanings of the morphemes <mal> and <vol>. While researching (using Etymonline), they will also learn the history of the word and these bases.
With teacher guidance they will learn about the connecting vowel <e>. They learn that with two bases in one word, this word is a connected compound (meaning it is a compound word with a connecting vowel between the bases).
Lastly the student will recognize that <ent> is a commonly used suffix (based on previously investigated words with that suffix and also a list of words compiled by students in which <ent> is clearly the suffix). By separating a word into syllables, the suffix <ent> is not recognizable because it is visually paired with an <l>, forming a familiar word <lent>.
None of the syllables in the word <malevolent> have meaning. They do not enhance a student’s understanding of what the word means. What if … instead of having students break words into meaningless parts that may or may not make the rote memorization of the word easier, we have them break words into meaningful parts that the student can then relate to what they know of other words and other spellings? Gina Cooke referred to this process as peeling back the layers of a word in her video called “Making sense of spelling“. What a beautiful way to think about a word and its affixes.
Initially, the teacher said that she wanted her students to be able to pronounce the words. Teaching the students IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) would be better suited to this end than syllables anyway.