The ability to decode more complex text requires not only a working knowledge of the phonemes and graphemes of English and the 6 syllable types, but also an ability to divide multisyllabic words. How the words are divided affects the syllable types and pronunciation. At its most basic, syllables are units of speech. We hear or feel the beats, impulses or breaths in a word. We can put our hand under our chin and feel our chin drop for each syllable. But, when tasked with decoding an unknown word, locating and dividing syllables changes from an auditory task, to a task of visual detective work. It is not unusual to find the same word divided differently in different dictionaries depending on whether the word is divided according to morphemic or sound boundaries. Despite the possibility for differences, teaching students to divide words into syllable provides them with an important strategy for word analysis.
During an Orton-Gillingham lesson, I like to have students start tackling a longer unknown word by underlining the vowels, putting one finger on each one, and looking between them. Depending on the number of consonants he or she sees, the word will divide slightly differently. After making a tentative choice, the student pronounces the word by syllables. Sometimes there is trial and error involved. If the pronounced word is not recognized, it may be necessary to try a different syllable division pattern or a different accented syllable. Fortunately, there are some guidelines as to frequency of division and accenting patterns.
The simplest and most straight forward type of syllable division pattern is VCCV. When there are two consonants between the vowels, the syllable break falls in the middle. This is how we divide words such as cac/tus, cup/cake, rab/bit, bet/ter, and ex/cuse. Most commonly the accent is on the first syllable as in nap’/kin. Less commonly, the 2nd syllable is accented as in un/til’. The least common situation in the VCCV pattern is to divide before both consonants as in se’/cret or fra’/grant.
The next syllable division typically taught is VCCCV pattern, when there are three consonants between the vowels. In this case, the reader has to make a decision. The most common way to divide is after the first consonant, but a rule of thumb is that common blends and digraphs should be kept together. This is how we divide words such as gum/drops, ten/dril, hun/dred, pump/kin, sand/wich, and bank/rupt. Most commonly the word is divided after the first consonant with an accent on the first syllable such as pil’/grim. The second most common situation is to divide after the first consonant with the accent on the 2nd syllable as in com/plete’. Less commonly the word is divided after the second consonant with the first syllable accented as in pump’/kin.
For words with 4 consonants, typically the division is in the middle, again with attention to common three letter blends and trigraphs. Words that are divided in this way would include: back/ground, gang/ster, egg/plant, ab/stract, and ham/string. Very often these are compound words or words with a prefix or suffix.
Compound words are divided between the two words that make up the compound word. In most cases, this follows one of the patterns above, but for compound words where the first word part is a vowel-consonant-e syllable, this becomes important. In this way, we would divide base/ball, mole/hill, fire/man, life/line or even line/up.
When just one consonant falls between two vowels in a VCV pattern, the reader once again must do some detective work. In this situation approximately 60-75% of words divide before the consonant. This makes the first syllable an open syllable and the vowel would have a long sound. This is true in words such as ti/ger, po/ny, Da/vid, hu/man and be/have. The long vowel sound should be tried first. Most frequently, the accent is on the first syllable. Less often, it is the 2nd syllable that is accented, often in verbs. If the long vowel sound does not make sense, there is a good possibility that the word in question falls into the smaller percentage of words that divide after the consonant, making the first syllable closed and the vowel sound short. This is the case in words such as: cam/el, rob/in, cred/it, pun/ish and lim/it. Once again the reader must rely on his or her judgment and some trial and error. In this case, the accent is typically on the first syllable as in riv/er.
Perhaps the most complex and challenging syllable division scenario is the VV pattern. Fortunately, this is not a very common syllable division pattern. Most often, this type of syllable division occurs with vowels that do not form a vowel team, as in the word Ohio or Oreo; “io”” and “eo” are not vowel teams, therefore indicating that the word is divided between the vowels. Each of the vowels makes its own sound. Typically, the accent falls on the first syllable. Sometimes, a word will look like a vowel team as in the ue in fluent or the ie in client. In this case, reading the vowels as a vowel team does not make a real word. The syllables are divided between the vowels and are not a vowel team in this situation.
A knowledge of syllable division patterns and a routine of divisions to try if the solution is not obvious are invaluable for helping the Orton-Gillingham student deal with complex multisyllabic words. Having a roadmap to guide them gives students a sense of control and agency, sometimes giving students with dyslexia a chance to shine as they apply their knowledge to activities in the regular education classroom. It should be noted that expanding the student’s listening vocabulary is extremely valuable as they must rely on their ability to recognize a real word to guide them. As always, it is important to make syllable division instruction multisensory and hands on.