kitchen table math, the sequel: Syllables, Syllables, Syllabary

Monday, February 11, 2008

Syllables, Syllables, Syllabary

Teaching phonics with syllables works a lot faster than regular phonics and allows students to read at high grade levels quickly.

Teaching with syllables, "Johnny" went from reading at the 3rd grade level to reading at the 6th grade level after 6 hours of phonics instruction. (The early version of my online phonics lessons, now 12 hours total instruction.)

Before 1826, children were taught to read with the syllabary. The first part of the syllabary is shown on old hornbooks.

Children taught with Webster's Speller and the syllabary could read this in first grade:

"Now, if you will try to re-mem-ber what I have told you a-bout these si-lent let-ters, I think you will be able to read ver-y well, in a short time; and I suppose you will be ver-y glad when you are a-ble to read pret-ty stories in books.

The si-lent let-ters which are used in spell-ing ma-ny words are ver-y puz-zling to lit-tle boys and girls, when they are learn-ing to read; but I hope that the good lit-tle boy or girl who is now read-ing this les-son will try ver-y hard to rec-ol-lect how all the words are spelt; and that the teach-er will re-quire ev-e-ry pu-pil to be a-ble to spell ev-e-ry word that is read. By so doing, the pu-pil will learn to read much fast-er, and in a short time hard words will cease to trou-ble him." (from Parker's First Reader, 1851)

and this in second grade:
"All persons, who are not deprived by nature or by accident of something which belongs to them by the gift of God, their Creator, have five senses." (from Parker's National Second Reader, 1869)
After teaching my daughter with Webster's, she can read just about anything. She's still 5 (she'll be 6 soon) and can sound out 3 and 4 syllable words she has never seen before. After 4 months of seeing syllables divided like those shown in the 1st grade selection above, she can now divide them on her own. A few months ago, she could read 3 and 4 syllable words only if they were divided for her. You can learn all about how to teach with Webster's and the Syllabary, it's surprisingly easy.

I believe that teaching syllables is a crucial step missing in most phonics programs today. A Beka divides words by syllables, and every child I've seen taught with this program was reading far above their grade level.


Anonymous said...

Without examining the book that you are talking about my initial suspicion is that it does not teach reading via syllables but rather it teaches segmentation of syllables. Here is why I suspect this. According to Diane McGuiness, consonants and vowels can combine to create 15 different syllable patterns:

The way that the 25 consonants and 18 vowels can comine in these syllables means that there are over 55,000 phentically legitimate syllables, as many syllables as words in common uses. Does the book really cover 55,000 combinations of English sounds? Or does it do an incomplete job covering only the most common ones leaving the kids to implicitly "intuit" sounding out of novel syllables (that you might encounter in books such as Dr. Seuss) via phonics?

I can think of one modern phonics program that does make use of syllables in the earliest stage of the program. It begins by teaching the five short vowel sounds and then each lesson following teaches a new consonant sound which is immediately practiced by sounding out the syllables ba, be, bi, bo, bu. However, it does not go on to teach all syllables and all sounds, only the "basic code." It isn't syllable-based but phonics.

My problem with that system, which I attempted to use, is that it incorrectly teaches the child from the beginning that an open syllable is to be pronounced with a short vowel. When the kid learns words such as "he" and "to" you have to tell him to forget all he practiced and do it a new way. The same is true when encountering multisyllabic words. Is "re" to be pronounced as re-duce or as in the color "red"?

When the school system taught my son my son to chunk/memorize word initial consonant blends the results were disasterous, and this memorization of blends would also be done on a syllable based reading system, the results were disasterous. When he encountered a word such as "fog" he'd just as likely say "flog" or "frog." After I taught him phonics that stopped.

Of course, it is always the case that some children thrive on whatever reading program is used with them. Even whole language gets 50% of the kids reading!

Anonymous said...

Myrtle, I have to agree with you - and I am familiar with the modern text that you mentioned. Fortunately, we discovered the Explode The Code series. Book 5 of the series was a real eye opener for me. Syllabication rules, open and closed syllables??!! Why didn't I learn this in school??

Megawords starts with these concepts. I can't say enough good things about it.

Catherine Johnson said...

I haven't seen the book, and haven't got the mental space or energy to reason this all through, but I am a HUGE "believer in syllables," whatever that means. (Sorry.)

This is one of those times when I trust my instincts (again: SORRY!)

The Megawords people say that you can't read polysyllabic words "phonetically," meaning that a child can't read them solely through letter-sound correspondence. You have to move on to reading via syllables.

I believe this, if only because of working memory limitations -- and because of the phenomenon of chunking.

As I understand Webster's syllabary, this approach to teaching reading jibes perfectly with working memory & chunking.

You start with letter-sound & work with it until children have mastered it (or until children have mastered some portion of it which would support moving on to mastering syllables based on those letter-sound correspondences).

Then you move on to the study and mastery of syllables.

To me, that is a perfect illustration of chunking.

It is also, at least in my experience of the teaching of reading, a missing step.

People seem to move directly from letter-sound correspondences to reading for comprehension.

Catherine Johnson said...

One of my concerns has always been that C. could not read multisyllabic nonsense words such as "robnid" - that kind of thing.

I've positive a fluent decoder should be able to do that.

I can do it in languages I can neither speak nor read: Italian, for instance. I can read multisyllabic words in Italian.

C. has never been able to do this, which is one of the reasons I've stuck with Megawords for lo these many years.

Elizabeth has a terrific page of nonsense words I'm going to see if C. can read.

Catherine Johnson said...

When the school system taught my son my son to chunk/memorize word initial consonant blends the results were disasterous, and this memorization of blends would also be done on a syllable based reading system, the results were disasterous.

Did they start with blends?

As I understand the system Elizabeth is describing, you start with phonics.

Then move on to blends.

Not sure it's blends, even.

It's syllables.

(Obviously I don't know what all these terms mean...)

Catherine Johnson said...

I think I can give a testimonial to Megawords.

C. was a horrifically bad speller when we began the series. I used to think of his spelling as psychotic.

We started with the first book in 5th grade; he's now in the 4th book in 8th grade.

His spelling, now, is at least plausible. He's still not a good speller, and if he has to write fast (taking notes) his spelling regresses.

But when he writes at a normal clip, he's "in the realm."

We're going to finish the series.


He'll be a junior in high school still doing Megawords. (It's an 8-book series.)

I'm also going to go through Elizabeth's pages to figure out whether C. could benefit from remedial phonics.

He was taught to read using balanced literacy. I wonder whether his terribly poor spelling is due to that fact.

C. is an excellent reader (scores at the very top of the country on norm-referenced tests) and a bad speller.

That doesn't "feel right" to me.

Again with the instincts and the feelings, but given the fact that I'm a writer, I'm willing to trust myself in this area.

SteveH said...

When my son was in Kindergarten, the school was pushing "onset" and "rime". It was a way they could avoid the dreaded direct phonics. They used O-G in fourth grade only for remedial purposes.

ElizabethB said...


Webster's teaches closed syllables as short, open syllables as long, after that it goes on to teach all the rest of the syllable patterns you mention.

You learn ab, eb, ib, ob, ub; ba, be, bi bo, bu by, etc in the syllabary before extending this knowledge to syllable patterns in real words. Here's the syllabary, the basis of the syllables taught:

ElizabethB said...

And, you teach it with phonics, just using syllables as the basis. You teach them to sound out and spell each of the syllables using phonics, then you go on to teach them the rest of the words the same way.

I've never liked teaching ba as short a myself, I also don't like the idea of introducing any confusions or anything you have to unlearn. On my dyslexia page, I have a great quote from Hilde Mosse about avoiding confusions (conditioning), here it is:

Some textbooks such as Teaching Reading with Words in Color and some self-teaching devices use different colors for different letters or indicate the different letter sounds with different colors, so that each letter contains two signals: its form and its color (Gattegno, 1968). This confuses children to such an extent that either no conditioning takes place at all or the child becomes conditioned to only one of the stimuli, the form or the color. Pavlov has demonstrated this phenomenon in many experiments. The vast majority of children will become conditioned to the color only, because color excites children more than form. These children then read all red letters, for example, as "S," if "S" was shown read. I have observed such errors in conditioning and witnessed children struggling to disentangle form from color.

Pictures are another form of interference that renders impossible the formation of these basic reflexes. The child must see the signal clearly for what is is: a form and not a picture. Where he is shown "flash cards" with a picture above a word--that is, a word and a picture shown at the same time, the necessary conditioning the child needs for reading cannot take place at all. This is the main reason the word/picture method of teaching reading to beginners is so devastating, and why comic books that train the child to picture gazing and to relying on pictures to tell stories are so damaging for reading (Mosse, 1962b).

The sounds of letters and of letter combinations should be pronounced clearly and should always should always sound the same. Noises interfere with the formation of this part of the conditioned reflex. Conditioning should ideally be done in a quiet room without yelling. This is very difficult to achieve in a crowded classroom. Teachers and parents, however, should be made aware of the fact that conditioning cannot be accomplished while the television set is going, and the radio and/or the record player are blaring. [18]

ElizabethB said...

Here's the basic Webster's sequence:

syllables taught phonetically (children learn to sound them out AND spell them before moving on to words)

ab, eb, ib, ob, ob;
ba, be, bi, bo, bu, by
ax, ex, ix, ox, ox,
qua, que, qui, quo (not exclusion of not possible quu or quy)

Then, 3 letter words:
bag, big, bog, bug, lot, wen...

Then, blends:
belt, gilt, band, bled, flag, clog, club, damp, send

and: call, bill, brim

Next, VCVC
lace, fade, pipe, fire, pile

Next 5 letter words:
blank, blush, bless, crime, blame

Eventually, they get to 2 syllable words
ba ker, glo ry o ver

and 3 syllable words
di a dem
flu en cy
la zi ness

After going through to 3 and 4 syllable words, my daughter can literally read almost anything. Any time she stumbles on a syllable, I just go back to the syllabary and have her read across the line for the syllable she needs, then she sounds it out in isolation, then she goes back to the word she was having trouble with.

Webster was a genius!

ElizabethB said...

That should have been CVCV!

ElizabethB said...

Webster has all of those syllable patterns! (He DID write a dictionary, after all!)