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Neil MacKay
Dyslexia Friendly Strategies & Support

The Four Rules of Syllabification

The 4 Rules of Syllables – for Fiona



My secondary students were bogged with definitions of syllables- open/closed, long/short – totally mystified and reluctant to continue with systems, processes and language that they associated with failure in the past.  Instead I started to talk about vowel names, vowel sounds and how my students had the power to control what a syllable “said” by where they placed a single vowel. – forgetting digraphs and silent ‘e’ for now.  All of a sudden it began to make sense.

Our 4 Rules of Syllables are:

Single vowels say their sounds in syllables when the vowel:

Is at the start of a syllable – syl/lab/if/ic/a/tion


Is in a “cvc sandwich” - syl/lab/if/ic/a/tion


Single vowels say their names in syllables when the vowel:

Is on its own in a syllable - syl/lab/if/ic/a/tion


Is at the end of a syllable – pho/to/syn/the/sis

I found that non/pseudo words were brilliant for reinforcing the principles and built up lists that worked for “low stakes” spelling quizzes.  I also gave “syllable quizzes:

  • ·        Three letters to make the syllable ‘gub’
  • ·        Two letters to make the syllable ‘ap’
  • ·        Three letters to make the syllable ‘flo’
  • ·        Four letters to spell ‘’flub’
  • ·        Two syllable word flo/pag.  Each syllable has 3 letters
  • ·        Three syllable word e/cro/lum – total of seven letters

Orton Gillingham also refer to almost a hierarchy of syllable division but it is still about making the syllables say what you want

1.     Words like rabbit, hopping  etc - try splitting between two consonants – ‘rab/bit’

2.    Words like apron, open etc – try splitting after the vowel

3.    Words like camel, robin, punish etc – try splitting after the cvc – cam/el, pun/ish

Activities 2+3  works best with plastic letters and challenging students to “change where you split” to change the sounds of the words.

I would say “Can you change the split to make apron say ‘ap/ron, to make robin say ‘ro/bin’ “ and so on.

Sometimes the syllabification can sound a bit contrived but we do this all the tiem with words like ‘pe-op-le’ or Wed-nes-day’ and my students were fine with it.  It does take a bit of discipline to apply the principles but it is worth it.

Also challenge them to use  letters to make, say, a two syllable non-word where one syllable has a vowel name and one has a vowel sound – but you can’t do it with silent ‘e’ – and so on

And so we come to the syllabification of polysyllabic words as shown below.  It is surprising – and pleasing – how many jargon words work too, especially once I teach the silent e convention and ‘tion’ as a unit of sound.  Hy/pot/en/use, tec/ton/ic, Ro/me/o, par/al/lel/o/gram (students and many adults want to go ‘Pa/ra/lel’ which is logical in one sense but doesn’t follow the rules – a good one to do with the letters to talk about how changing the split changes the sound.

When we get to digraphs, the simple rule “when two vowels go walking, the first one (usually) does the talking’ can help – floa/ting, rea/der etc.

But – and a big but – this only works with words students can use correctly in speech.


Hope this helps – please let me know


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