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Why not to teach syllable types

posted in: Secondary literacy

Teachers who have been teaching rules, syllable types etc for years might think there’s ‘something missing’ from That Reading Thing. What’s missing is the burden on memory that prevents students from learning to read quickly. We ask our tutors to ask themselves, am I tearing down a barrier to reading or building one up?

Dyslexia tutors who are trained in programs like Orton-Gillingham are showing an interest in linguistic (speech to print) phonics and this has led to more frequent questions about TRT’s approach to syllables which firmly rejects teaching syllable types or boundary rules.

A recently trained TRT tutor emailed to ask:

I’m wondering about how pupils break up a word into syllables. On your training video you show them breaking up the word ‘habit’. Personally, I would go ‘hab’ and ‘it’, whereas the pupil on your video said ‘ha’ ‘bit’.

Does this particularly matter? Or have I been doing it wrong all these years?!

This is what we do instead:

  • Student says the word the way they will remember: ha/bit or hab/it – either is fine.
  • Tutor nudges for meaning. i.e. Student says tom/orr/ow so you nudge to to/morr/ow (or to/mo/rrow if they prefer- usually accent dependent)
  • When deciding if it’s a short or long vowel, rather than trying to recall a ‘syllable type’, the student simply tries both options and listens for the word.

We’ve always had this approach but now there is research to back it up: “Does English Have Useful Syllable Division Patterns?” (Devin Kearns, Reading Research Quarterly, 2020). Here’s a very helpful post by Dr. Joanne Pierson summarising the research.

The Kearns research is behind a paywall here.


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