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Teaching Open/Closed syllables

Posted: Sun Jun 20, 2010 2:22 am
by cartwheel
I am wondering if anyone has information about any research related to the teaching of open/closed syllables. The Orton-Gillingham approach makes much of "syllable types" and I am curious if there is research to support this. It seems to me that it would only be helpful in the teaching of spelling, and would best be kept until basic reading skills are firm. Is there any empirical evidence, either way, on this issue?


Re: Teaching Open/Closed syllables

Posted: Sun Jun 20, 2010 9:45 am
by Susan Godsland
You should find the following thread helpful, Jennie:

The 'usefulness' of the 'rules' of syllabification ... f=9&t=3126

Re: Teaching Open/Closed syllables

Posted: Sun Jun 20, 2010 8:39 pm
by Elizabeth
There are some useful quotes in that message, e.g.
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
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!"
"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).
My view is that it is unnecessary and complicated to teach rules about syllables.

It is true that children who struggle with reading are often daunted by a long word and tend to just read the beginning and then guess. I usually help them to break it up by covering part of the right-hand side of the word, so that they sound and blend the beginning part of the word first. Then I show more, possibly covering the part they have already blended, to get them to sound and blend the next part without trying to say the first part again. I may divide the word into three or four parts. Then I ask them to remember each part and put them all together, which they find quite difficult sometimes. In other words, I give lots of guidance and so they do not read the word independently. Maybe there is a better way. (It would be a good topic for the practical message board.) However, gradually they stop just reading the beginning and then guessing, and they begin reading more long words independently and accurately. I doubt rules about syllables would help.

I know better where it would be helpful to split a word than my pupils do, because I can read the word already. Sometimes it is easy to keep two syllables together, e.g. a child who is able to sound and blend simple words can usually manage the word ‘happy’ in one go. Splitting compound words into separate words obviously helps, e.g. ‘post-man’. Splitting words into a prefix, a root word and a suffix often helps, e.g. ‘un-reason-able’. Children should be taught about root words, prefixes and suffixes, once they can read simpler words easily. ‘Chunks’ are more useful than syllables, because the teachers and pupils can be more flexible with ‘chunks’.

I believe if you go down the route of looking at open and closed syllable rules, you may end up dividing a word like 'happy' into 'hap' and 'py', which is not very helpful for reading.

Re: Teaching Open/Closed syllables

Posted: Mon Jun 21, 2010 11:33 am
by Susan Godsland
There's also this past thread:

Open and closed syllables ... f=1&t=3063

Re: Teaching Open/Closed syllables

Posted: Tue Jun 22, 2010 5:21 am
by AngusM
Just noticed this thread.

Various researchers including I believe Steve Stahl have complained that there has not been a lot of research to support O-G (and its fixation on syllable rules). As you probably know O-G is a form of analytic phonics which uses a huge superstructure of rules to explain exceptions to (and to extend) Webster's syllabication system. The idea being that if you somehow know the 'rules' or 'logic' of English orthography you'll be able to read and spell. So, for instance, in order to read something like 'baby' you'd need to split the word into two syllables 'ba' -"by' and because the first syllable is open (i.e. it doesn't end with a consonant) you'd be able to learn how to pronounce the long vowel /ay/. I believe synthetic phonics would simply propose 'tweaking' the sound and seeing if the resulting word made sense.

Michael Bend (ABCeDarian) has suggested that Samuel Orton developed these rules because he knew that his dyslexic students were bright and he believed that logic could be used to bypass their 'word blindness'. This despite the fact that Webster (as Diane McGuinness has reported) specifically recommended against teaching children rules. McGuinness elsewhere points out that Piaget found that children up to the age of 11 or 12 (?) have difficulty learning propositional logic. Better to focus on paired-associate learning.

One of Linnea Ehri's former graduate students recently did a study at Queens College here in NYC which showed that dictionary rules of syllabication were of no significant help in teaching reading. She and others (e.g. Anita Archer of the University of Oregon) have found that it is more effective to allow students to work more flexibly with multisyllabic words. Here is what Archer said in one article "Decoding and Fluency" (which you can find on the internet):

"At one time, students were taught a set of syllabication rules, instructed to use the rules to divide words into parts, and then asked to apply their phonetic knowledge to determine the pronunciation of the unknown word. Many of us have memories of receiving a list of long words that we were to "divide" into perfect dictionary syllables. In recent years, research has supported a shift from rigid rules to a more flexible approach to decoding of longer words. Shefelbine (1990), in a research study that taught syllable types to fourth- and sixth-grade students, stressed that students should locate alternative decodable chunks if the first ones did not result in a recognizable word. Students were taught to use alternative pronunciations until a match was made to their oral vocabulary. The need for flexibility is reinforced by an analysis of two-syllable words containing open and closed syllables (Greif, 1981). In this analysis of 138,000 words, the author determined that only 45% of open-syllable words and 56% of closed-syllable words would be correctly pronounced using the understanding that in closed syllables a short vowel sound should be used and in open syllables a long vowel sound should be used.

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.

I met Anita Archer at the most recent IDA Meeting in NYC in March. She has worked with Englemann and Robert Dixon (related word strategy for teaching spelling). She is an absolutely wonderful teacher. To my mind it was somewhat amazing that she was invited to talk at the IDA because they are pretty much a closed shop Orton-Gillingham outfit - and there she was pretty much telling them that the core foundation of they way they teach reading (i.e. syllabication rules) has no research backing!


Re: Teaching Open/Closed syllables

Posted: Tue Jun 22, 2010 11:50 pm
by Debbie Hepplewhite
Very interesting and important post, Angus, thank you for that.