Open and closed syllables

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Post by Judy » Thu Oct 04, 2007 9:36 am

Maizie - have you tried using Rod Everson's strategy for getting over the b/d confusion?

(Apologies for changing the subject!)

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Post by chew8 » Thu Oct 04, 2007 10:12 am

'In words like 'ancient', the grapheme is 'ci' so the 'i' belongs with the 'ci' as code for the /sh/ sound.'

This is one way of looking at it, but it's what I think of as 'being-wise-after-the-event' phonics: once you know both the spelling and the pronunciation of 'ancient', you can work out that 'ci' encodes the /sh/ sound. But in practical terms, phonics-for-reading and phonics-for spelling are not about working out correspondences when both spelling and pronunciation are known - they are about working out pronunciations from spellings and spellings (as far as possible) from pronunciations. One can't tell, just by looking at the written word 'ancient' (without already knowing how it's pronounced) that its normal pronunciation has a /sh/ sound in it - 'ci' also occurs in 'science', 'prescience', 'pronunciation' and other words where the 'ci' is not pronounced /sh/.* One also can't tell just from listening to the spoken word 'ancient' (without already knowing how it's spelt) that if one were spelling it one should write 'ci' for the /sh/ - or, for that matter, 'ent' rather than 'ant' for the last bit.

People who formulate spelling rules, however, invariably know (and need to know) both spellings and pronunciations of words. They know that many people know the 'i before e except after c' rule and will think that words such as 'ancient' break this rule. One way of explaining it is to say that it doesn't apply when the 'c' is part of a spelling for the /sh/ sound, and another way is to say that it doesn't apply unless the following sound is a clear /ee/ sound. Either way, my own view is that the rule gets too complicated to be useful. In any case, knowing it, in whichever form, does not eliminate the need for word-specific learning, especially for spelling purposes, so why not just get on with the word-specific learning and ditch the rule? Note that I am saying this specifically in relation to the 'i before e' rule - there are other rules where I would not take this line because of their much greater usefulness.

*Interestingly, 'science'. 'conscience' and 'prescience' all come from the same Latin root - 'scio', meaning 'I know', which the Romans probably pronounced 'ski-oh'. To the best of my knowledge, there is no logical reason for the three different pronunciations of the 'sci' bit.

Jenny C.

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Post by mtyler » Thu Oct 04, 2007 1:08 pm

It may have been the complexity of teaching phonics this way that gave phonics a bad reputation, especially here in the US. When I found synthetic phonics via Diane McG, it appeared to me to be a completely new look at phonics, distilling it to its essence, eliminating the complexities. I had already been through a number of phonics programs with little success.

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Post by Rod Everson » Fri Oct 05, 2007 4:25 pm

Maizie wrote:

"Rod Everson has put some lesson plans for teaching polysyllabic words, in 10 x 10 minute lessons, on his website. I'm trialling them with a small group of children who have decoding skills just about in place but need to become more confident with 'long' words."

Hi maizie,

I noticed that I was getting some visitors from this site, so I joined for a couple of reasons. First, my own website is more or less a "book" rather than a discussion forum and this looks like a good site to discuss the issues I deal with in my private reading practice. Second, I like sites where the phonics vs. whole word arguments have already been settled in favor of phonics. Also, I hope I can address some of the questions that inevitably arise when people visit my website.

For now, I just want to point out that the best link to the sequence of phonics lessons for older kids is the one below. The link you provided goes to the main multi-syllable discussion in the curriculum I use with my clients.

Junior High Phonics Course

That page is a long explanation as to why I designed it as I did. The next page is a Table of Contents and then there's ten separate pages, each being one lesson plan. I realize that the lessons will take longer than ten minutes, and I'd like some feedback as people try it. Maybe I can get some of that in here? Our Junior High students are generally 11-14 years old, but it should work for older students as well.

As far as the general discussion on this thread, I wholeheartedly agree. The less rules the better.

Rod Everson, OnTrack Reading

PS: I'm not trying to sell anything, but I've found it simpler to put my thoughts in one place, especially the long ones, and then refer people to the site at times, rather than re-posting (and re-typing) the same thing over and over.

PPS: Regarding the main reason we used to learn syllable boundaries: I saw a news article that divided "rewrite" as "rew-rite" the other day when the computer ran out of space at the end of the line. At least I hope it was a computer.

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Sum up this thread

Post by AngusM » Thu Nov 01, 2007 8:48 pm

I've been doing a little googling on this subject for the past few weeks and I thought I'd share with you all a bit of what I've found. A lot of it may be old news to you.

I've communicated with Michael Bend of ABeCeDarian (SP approach) here in the US and Tom Burkard. Bend replied to me as follows:

"That's an interesting question. One reference I have, (Moats, Speech to Print) attributes the categorization of syllables into the 6 types to Noah Webster as mechanism for figuring out syllable division in his dictionary. (Unfortunately, Moats repeatedly refers to Noah Webster as Samuel Webster.) Venezky (American Way of Spelling, pp. 101 ff.) has some interesting discussion of open and closed syllables, without discussing the historical origins of the terms. He describes the use of geminate consonants to signal a "short" (checked, lax) vowel sound for the immediately preceding vowel letter (e.g., ladder). I believe that the distinction between open and closed syllables does exist generally speaking among linguists, but you would have to confer with a linguist or two to be sure.

I suspect that Gillingham and or Stillman picked up the Webster categorization of syllables and applied it to their reading instruction. The original Orton people were working very often with quite bright dyslexic children, and so they tried to use the students' ability to understand logic and rules to help them understand the details of the spelling system that had they could not grasp through less systematic exposure because of their perceptual deficits. I agree entirely, however, with the statement you quote from Tom Burkard regarding the utility of teaching this categorization scheme (as well as his praise for Engelmann).

Tom Burkard responded that he would never teach rules "if we can possibly avoid it. For reading, never. For spelling, only for the highest-utility rules: dropping the 'e'; doubling the final consonant; and changing the y to i. Even if rules were more reliable, as they are in many other languages, they are of dubious utility for most children, and positively disastrous for children with poor working memory. With the latter, by the time they have recalled the rule (and what is going to trigger this recall?), they will have forgotten what it is supposed to apply to; there is just too much to hold in the head at once. One of the best authorities on this, as on most other issues in teaching basic skills, is Sigfried Englemann. The best procedure is to model the correct response, and have the child practice it."

I responded today to Michael Bend as follow:

"I've just re-read Marilyn Adams 'Beginning to Read' chapter entitled Orthographic Processing since your last email. On page 133, she confirms pretty much what you have said: Noah Webster is the culprit and his rules for syllabification "may or may not correspond to the way in which an able reader breaks words up." She goes on to say that "There is, moreover, no obvious instructional purpose in worrying about whether or not they do."!

My real question though was to do with what the proponents of syllabication rules specifically hope to achieve from teaching them. Are these rules supposed to help reading (segmenting & blending) or spelling (segmenting) - or both? Adams agrees with Jenny Chew on this. She says that if syllabification (what she calls it) is supposed to help reading it is a 'circularly unproductive' technique - because, in order to break a word down into syllables, the reader must first sound the word out. But "being able to sound the word out was the goal of breaking the word into syllables in the first place'! She concludes further on that "efforts to teach children how to divide words into syllables have generally produced little measurable improvement either in children's ability" to generalize these rules "or in their overall vocabulary and reading comprehension scores".

The same logic applies to spelling. Jenny Chew says in one of her posts to me on this "The problem with the syllable-type rules that you mention ...., strikes me as being that if you already know that you are dealing with (say) a vowel-consonant-e syllable or a vowel-team syllable, then you probably already know the spelling of that syllable!"

The solution for Adams is simple "to induce children to focus on the the likely sequences that comprise syllables, words and frequent blends and digraphs. As the children become familiar with these spelling patterns their ability to syllabify will naturally emerge along with the automaticity....". Beyond that she suggests that, to develop "solid word recognition skills", "children should read lots and often". My only tentative disagreement here would be to her suggestion that children should focus on blends, digraphs and segments of words because, to my mind, this muddies the waters - adding another layer of writing units on top of the GPCs. As Diane McGuinness has shown, no writing system ever uses more than one sound unit (with possible exception of Chinese - which is morphemic-syllabic?) and teaching more than one (i.e. the phoneme) just confuses children.

Other research I have found basically agrees with Adams. Linnea Ehri did a study in 2004 entitled "Graphosyllabic analysis helps adolescent struggling readers to read and spell words". She eliminates "rigid application of dictionary-based syllabication rules dictating the correct location of syllable boundaries" and instead gives students the flexibility to chose their own boundaries (so long as vowels are assigned to separate syllables). Her study showed that this approach (basically like SP's and **'s chunking and morphemic approach) was effective whereas the more rigid approach was not. She says "it was more important to teach children to form complete graphosyllabic connections between spellings and pronunciations within words than to teach them to apply rules...".

Even Shefelbine (1990) who found some positives in teaching syllabication adopted a flexible approach where rules were abandoned in favor of 'locating alternative decodable chunks'. Greif (1981) found that:

"..... only 45.5% of open syllable word and 56% of closed syllable words would be correctly pronounced using the understanding that in closed syllable words a short vowel sound should be used and in open syllables a long vowel sound should be used."

A paper by Vicky Vachon in the Learning Disability Quarterly (March 22, 2003) agrees:

"Syllabication rules are seldom taught today for a number of reasons: (a) the rules are too numerous and complex to remember, (b) most teachers have concluded that mastery of the rules did not enhance their students' decoding skills, and, most important, (c) research has demonstrated little relationship between knowing the rules and successful reading (Canney & Schreiner, 1977). Instead of teaching complex syllabication rules, students must be exposed to the visual patterns found in English, and flexibility must be emphasized (Cunningham, 1998; Shefelbine, 1990). Instead of using complex rules to divide words into parts, readers are taught to divide words into decodable chunks by first looking quickly at almost all letters, and then segmenting big words into parts based on familiar patterns found in words."

It seems clear from all this that reasonable people agree that strict adherence to Websterian syllabication rules is a waste of time. All the more amazing that O-G systems like Wilson continue to complicate matters by using them! Are they 'evidence-based' or not?"

I hope this is of interest. I will be in the UK for the Conference next week and look forward to meeting some of you there.

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Post by maizie » Thu Nov 01, 2007 9:45 pm

Wow, Angus! This is 'classic posts' material!

Thank you for teasing out all this information.

I was most struck by your quote from Tom Burkard:
Even if rules were more reliable, as they are in many other languages, they are of dubious utility for most children, and positively disastrous for children with poor working memory. With the latter, by the time they have recalled the rule (and what is going to trigger this recall?), they will have forgotten what it is supposed to apply to; there is just too much to hold in the head at once.
When I first started working with struggling readers I was 'trained' on an OG type programme and this is exactly the conclusion I drew from the difficulties children had with the 'rules' of syllabification.

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Post by g.carter » Thu Nov 01, 2007 10:34 pm

Agree! Many thanks, Angus.

I did a part-time one year training in OG in 97. We used to tear our hair out over the 6 rules of syllabification - wondering how on earth children would find them useful if we found them so difficult.
Luckily, four or five months after training finished I heard Diane McGuinness on the Radio here and the rest is history....

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Post by chew8 » Thu Nov 01, 2007 10:44 pm

I probably wouldn't go as far as Tom B. in saying that rules are of dubious utility for most children' (my emphasis). I think that most can cope with some sensible rules, provided that they are introduced in a practical way at an appropriate stage. After a solid phonics start, my contemporaries and I were taught at the age of 7 or 8 about when to double consonants, drop silent 'e' and change 'y' to 'i', and all or most us mastered these things. We had to, because all spelling errors in all written work were marked and had to be corrected.

I accept that the strugglers can find this sort of thing difficult, but I think we should consider the needs and abilities of non-strugglers as well as strugglers.

Jenny C.

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Post by AngusM » Fri Nov 02, 2007 12:24 am

I think Tom agrees with you Jenny - because he specifically included the geminate consonant (rule) tip and the "doubling the final consonant, dropping the 'e' and adding a 'y'" tip as high-utility. I think that Adams and Ehri probably would agree as well. Here is Adams on p211 of 'Beginning to Read':

"It is automatic, frequency-based pattern recognition that is responsible for the speed and reliability with which skillful readers process the spellings, sounds ..... This is the product of their abstracted rules.." (these were defined earlier this way: a pattern becomes abstracted when it provides a consistent response across... nonidentical contexts - paraphrased). Adams goes on to say that "in contrast, rules (like the syllable rules - my comment) that are acquired only as abstract principles must live in another part of the head - the part in charge of conscious interpretation, not the part in charge of automatic .... reponding."

She goes on to say that these are not a complete waste of time - they are a "reasonable means of pointing a reader's attention to an aspect of spelling..." and sometimes a useful backup algorithm etc etc. But they cannot substitute for the "perceptual, conceptual and procedural experiences to which they allude." She says, "When the interletter associations are in place and doing their job, the rule is unlikely to be consciously accesed and is in any case superfluous."

Rules may be helpful she suggets for writing when the 'retrieval of spelling patterns is generally under conscious reflection". Adams uses the "i before e poem" (maybe Susan quoted this before):

i before e,
Except after c,
Or when sounded as a,
As in neighbor and weigh.
Either, neither, leisure and seize
Are four exceptions
If you please.

Could these spelling-type tips, Jenny, be thought of as providing for spelling what tweaking provides for decoding/blending?

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Post by chew8 » Fri Nov 02, 2007 8:07 am

I myself outlined what I called the 'drop, swap and double' rules in a pamphlet in 1992. In that same pamphlet, I said that I regarded the 'i before e' rule as fairly useless, and I have possibly said the same on this board. There are only 5 base words where 'ei' spelling of the /ee/ sound can be accounted for by a preceding 'c' - conceive, deceive, perceive, receive, ceiling. One can add 'seize', 'caffeine' and 'protein' (and 'counterfeit', in some people's pronunciation) as also containing this very unusual spelling of the /ee/ sound. As far as I'm concerned, it's easier, for spelling purposes, for children to learn these few words and know that what applies to them also applies to their offshoots (e.g. 'conceit' etc.) than to learn the 'rule' in its full form.

In any case, the rule in its full form, as given by Adams, contains 'exceptions' which are not exceptions in the UK, where 'leisure' is pronounced with a short /e/ in the first syllable and the preferred pronunciation of 'either' and 'neither' has a long /i/ in the first syllable.

In reading, words containing 'ei' can be managed by sounding out and tweaking if necessary, once one knows what the possible alternative pronunciations are. In spelling, word-specific knowledge is required.

Jenny C.

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Post by Rod Everson » Sun Nov 04, 2007 4:41 am


I've been following the syllable part of this thread and would like to share the method I've been using for teaching the "chunking" of unfamiliar words as it has worked exceptionally well with struggling readers. In fact, it works so well for most that it convinces them relatively quickly to dump their guessing strategy in favor of actually trying to decode the words.

There are some prerequisites, such as learning a lot of vowel spellings like vowel+e, vowel digraphs, etc., but once that is well underway I start multisyllable instruction by having kids read chunked words first. All of the chunked examples are divided by a "main rule" and "3 exceptions."

The "main rule" is just "Stop each chunk after the vowel sound and try the First Vowel Sound." Note: The First Vowel Sound in my curriculum is just the "short sound." If it's a vowel digraph, they just try one of the most common alternatives.

Exception #1 is "Add a doubled consonant (tt, dd, ff, etc.) to the chunk.

Exception #2 is "Add any marker to the chunk." (The markers are ck, tch, dg and x.)

Exception #3 is "Add the next sound if the following chunk is 'hard to say.'"

Within three or four sessions, most kids are ably chunking words and are also able to tell me when I ask why they added, for example, the /m/ sound to the chunk, that it was because it was doubled (ex: amm-u-ni-tion) or because the next chunk was "hard to say" (ex: am-pu-tate)

Here's the payoff: All three exceptions generally (not always, but generally) "lock in" First Vowel Sounds (short sounds.)

Doubled consonants were specifically designed to do so in many cases (the main exceptions are all and oll words "alligator works, but taller doesn't, and "dollar" works, but "roller" doesn't.)

Markers are spellings that always (almost) follow short vowel spellings.

And, it turns out, if the next chunk is hard to say (starts with an illegal blend) the "closing of the previous chunk" by adding another consonant sound almost always results in the vowel sound carrying the short sound in the closed chunk.

Since all three exceptions "lock in" the First Vowel Sound, and since I've trained them to always try the First Vowel Sound first, they can then ignore those chunks when they test overlap options. Thus, "amputate" is decoded efficiently on the second try by trying the Second Vowel Sound for the letter "u" in the second chunk (because the first chunk will stay "am" due to the application of the 3rd exception.)

It actually takes longer to describe than it does to teach, and kids pick it up rapidly. Because it works, they realize that it makes sense to dump their ever-present guessing strategy and you can see them actually beginning the process of examining a word chunk by chunk for the first time ever.

Of course, there are some trying times with each child, but most of them quickly take to this approach because it's so straightforward.

It's described in the Multisyllable section of the Guide on my website at

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Post by g.carter » Sun Nov 04, 2007 9:30 am

Thanks, Rod. Could exceptions 1 and 2 be condensed and no. l the doubled consonants be considered as a marker?
Two exceptions could be easier to handle than 3.

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Post by Derrie Clark » Sun Nov 04, 2007 2:30 pm

This has been an intersting thread. Day 4 of the Sounds-Write training deals with syllabification (for reading AND spelling), both in terms of teacher knowledge/skills and the programme content/lesson plans. (This builds on Day 3 where spelling variations are dealt with.) No rules needed. ;-)

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Post by Judy » Sun Nov 04, 2007 2:37 pm

Are you going to tell us how these things are 'dealt with', Derrie? :???:

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Post by chew8 » Sun Nov 04, 2007 4:34 pm

Yes, I too would be interested in the way Sounds~Write deals with areas where others think that some rules are useful, especially for spelling. For example, how does it teach children what to do when adding 'ing' to base words such as 'hop' and 'hope'? As I've said before, I've been involved with the spelling of older students since 1978, and I did find it useful to teach my 'drop, swap and double' rules. I myself had been taught these rules at primary school, though the term 'drop, swap and double' was not used.

Jenny C.

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