Syllable Use Helps With Spelling? Not Likely!

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.

One thought on “Syllable Use Helps With Spelling? Not Likely!

  1. The ‘syllable division’ideology of the English schooling text books is a story of confusion, misrepresentation and fallacy.

    Here is an extract from what the authoritative linguist David Crystal has to say about English syllables. Take a deep breath before reading it!


    Providing a precise definition of the syllable is not an easy task, and there are several theories in both phonetics and phonology which have tried to clarify matters…

    The ‘pulse’ or motor theory … argued that each syllable corresponds to an increase in air pressure, air from the lungs being released as a series of chest pulses… It is often difficult to detect such a pulse in adjacent syllables when two vowels co-occur, e.g. going.

    The prominence theory argues that, in a string of sounds, some are intrinsically more ‘sonorous’ than others, and that each ‘peak’ of sonority corresponds to the centre of the syllable… This approach gives a useful general guideline, but it does not always indicate clearly where the boundary between adjacent syllables lies.

    A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (Blackwell 1985)


    Linguisticians, then, are extremely guarded about syllable division as such: phonics, however, rushes in where linguistic angels fear to tread!

    Here are just a few indicators of the facts.

    1 English just is not a syllabically divisible language (just as Latinate languages ARE syllabically divisible in a way that does correspond to their phonologies, and, indeed, it is an essential part of the structure of those languages’ orthographies).

    2 English syllables can only be counted, not divided – and even then there are often different syllable counts for the written and spoken forms of a word.

    3 The syllable division “rules” have a cavalier disregard for the overwhelmingly most frequent phoneme of English, the shewa; nor do they take any account of the English phenomenon of stress.

    4 The school syllabication rules do not respect morphological boundaries.

    5 There is no necessary correspondence between the number of written syllables and spoken syllables in English — just consider even such a simple word as ‘every’ (usually two spoken and three written)!

    6 You can only successfully ‘encode’ or ‘decode’ words in conformity with these school syllabication rules if you already know how to spell and to pronounce – and then suitably mispronouce! – the word that they are being applied to!

    7 If you try to ‘read’ the typographically divided words given in dictionaries that claim to divide their header words into ‘syllables’ and try to ‘decode’ them into ‘sound’ syllable by syllable following the school rules, the result is a series of often incomprehensible vocal noises that are certainly not spoken English!

    The subject of school syllable division is baffling, not particularly the complicated mechanics of its ‘syllable division rules’ imposed on children who are often already at sea, but rather how it ever saw the light of day!

    These syllable division ‘rules’ for English are, in origin, absolutely nothing to do either with English phonology or morphology. They are, quite simply, linguistically invalid and require enunciatory violence and distorted pronunciation to give them even a semblance of specious verisimilitude!

    The conclusions to draw, then, are that it is wise to:

    1 leave the typographers to get on with their essential and extremely valuable work of applying the word division conventions that concern where to split words for the purpose of typographic justification that are entirely appropriate for the visual accessibility of text;

    2 cease the chimaeric quest for exact syllable boundaries in a language that is not syllabically divisible;

    3 liberate readers and writers who are already in difficulty from the so-called syllabication rules for reading and spelling, and teach real orthographic structure instead!

    There is a real spelling document that gives a full and detailed explanation of the English syllable, an account of the origin of the misconceived ‘syllable division / syllabication’ ideology, and a demonstration of why it is invalid for English. You can download it from this link.

    This is an ‘iso’ file – a disk image which you can either burn as a material disk, or just mount on your computer where it behaves exactly as if you had a material disk inserted in the computer.

    ‘Syllable division’ is an unholy alliance of false application to English of structures that are often validly specific to other languages, an invalid appropriation of the conventions of typographic word division, a truncated deformation of English phonology, and it has a complete disregard for the structurally orthographic unity of English. Congratulations for having rumbled the imposture!

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