Syllables vs Word Sums – The Understanding Continues

Having spent so many years clapping out words and breaking them into syllables in order to memorize spellings, my students are slowly making the transition to writing word sums instead.  Today I asked them to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle.  One side was to be headed ‘Syllables’ and the other ‘Word Sum’.  Then they were to look back in their Orthography notebooks at all of the words we have investigated.  They were to choose a bunch of those words and write each two ways.  On one side they were to divide the word by syllables and on the other side to write a word sum.  Then I asked them to talk to a partner about what happens to the word parts that have meaning when we break words into syllables.

As I listened in on the conversations, I was pleased.  This was a necessary step in the letting go of old habits.  They had to prove to themselves that word sums left meaningful word parts (morphemes) intact, whereas breaking a word into syllables just left them with letter groupings that had little or no meaning.  Allison pointed out that when <congregation>, <condensation>, and <integration> were broken into syllables, they all appeared to have a <tion> final suffix.  If the <t> is left attached to the <ion>, then the base or any suffix preceding the final suffix is harder to spot.

After the chance to discuss data in small groups, we had a large group sharing of the discoveries.  Maia pointed out that when <abnormality> is split into syllables, <mal> becomes an obvious word part.  We know that <mal> means bad, and that has nothing to do with <abnormality>, so in this case, syllables confuse the reader with incorrect morphemes.  Kolby made a great point when he talked about the word <unknown>.  If we don’t learn to recognize the base element of this word, we might not realize that there is a <w> in the word.  We certainly don’t hear it when we say the word!

7 thoughts on “Syllables vs Word Sums – The Understanding Continues

  1. What a fantastic lesson Mary-Beth. I am so impressed by the rigour in which your students went about this investigation and then impressed again by their insightful comments. Several of my Grade 7 students can become easily led astray by the syllable ‘spots’ in the dictionary entry. This investigation is excellent in showing what it is key in a word (morphemes) and why this is so important. I will show my students your class investigation and will definitely be using this as an investigation. Outstanding work (again!!) Grade 5. You have discovered so much that is important about word study in such a short amount of time!

  2. Just a quick follow up….

    I wrote my comment above after reading your post, but not before watching the excellent videos. What I want to add after listening to your students is that their observation that “breaking up words” into syllables directs you away from the meaning of words, while analysing words into morphemes highlights the meaning of words is just so crucial.

    That discovery of your students is key. My previous response about the fact that English words can’t be safely divided into syllables is intended as an additional point. When looking at questions of understanding spelling, it is very appropriate to focus the effect a spelling task has on the ability to cue meaning first!

    I’m so impressed with your student’s thinking!

  3. Another inspiring post Mrs. Steven.

    There is another issue that I suspect came up in your activity that I would be curious to learn about. One of the issues that I suspect occurred is that different groups may not have agreed on where to divide syllables. It turns out that while we can count the number of syllables in English words and we can identify which syllables are stressed, it is we cannot safely determine where to divide one syllable from the other.

    In contrast, even if we sometimes encounter word sums that we don’t resolve right away, there are scientific principles that can be used to support the analysis of written words into distinct morphemic elements.

    For example, consider the words REALLY and STEALY.

    I can offer two possible ways one might try to divide each of these words syllabically:

    real ly or real y

    steel ly or steel y

    I’m afraid I can’t use the proper brackets so take the above attempts not at spellings but as pronunciations of syllables. So the question is whether there is a pronunciation of the /l/ phoneme in each syllable, or if that phoneme is only in the first syllable.

    And because we are trying to learn to “syllabify” for the purpose of helping spelling, you are not allowed to use the spelling to tell you how you should divide syllables! So the first challenge is whether anyone can come arrive at a principled way to decide how these words should be divided into syllables — and those principles should be applicable for any other word.

    In contrast, given the written words REALLY and STEELY, I suspect your students will be able to prove the only correct answer about the morphological structure, and that analysis will explain why to words with such similar syllables must not both be spelled with two Ls.

    This is the message that your excellent task helps reveal. Not only does morphological analysis with word sums highlight the meaning of written words for learners. (I suspect many of your students worked out the basic meaning of STEELY before they checked a dictionary by doing this analysis!) As well, analyzing words into morphemes is a task that has a reliable provable answer. This is simply not the case or attempting to divide words into syllables.

    I’d be curious to hear any comments from your class or of any of your readers who take on the task of attempting to justify the syllable division and morphological analysis of the words REALLY and STEELY.

    Thank you so much for sharing this amazing learning in your class.

  4. I think that this lesson helped me understand word sums better. I realized that syllables don’t really work at all. It was a coincidence that two words (broken up into syllables) were the same as the word sums. The rest didn’t make sense at all. Somebody that goes by syllables will think that is a suffix.

  5. As usual I am learning a lot by listening to my students! I asked them to do this comparison because some still automatically divide by syllables when asked to hypothesize a word sum for a new word. Many interesting points have been made. I look forward to hearing more from the students. It’s always interesting to hear what they understand vs what they almost understand.

  6. This was a fascinating study, Mary Beth. It was interesting to me to see your students discussing the relative merits of syllable division and word sums for spelling. I know several teachers who use word sums but who consider syllable division is a useful strategy in reading or learning to pronounce words. I’d be interested in your students’ thoughts on this.

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