Recent research efforts by Devin Kearns, Ph.D. of the University of Connecticut examine whether patterns of syllable division provide a meaningful benefit to learners in a clinical setting. Findings indicate that patterns may be less useful than previously thought and are best applied as a part of a well rounded clinical strategy.

Syllable division: New data that can inform intervention

I recently read an article by Devin Kearns, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Connecticut, titled “Does English Have Useful Syllable Division Patterns?” (Reading Research Quarterly, 2020). As a clinician who uses a structured literacy approach and programs to remediate dyslexia and other reading disorders, this title captured my attention. Teaching syllable division, for decoding multisyllabic words, is one of the strategies that is utilized in the Orton-Gillingham approach, which is a structured literacy approach used by many practitioners. Kearns noted that there have been no studies “…to determine whether the recommended patterns work consistently (p. S146).” This study attempted to rectify that gap in the literature.

Kearns studied two very common syllable division patterns—VC*|CV and V|CV. He wrote that “applying the VC|CV and V|CV patterns will produce the correct pronunciations for the a in hatter and hater, but this requires considerable effort” (p. S146). He then provided examples from reading programs to demonstrate the numerous steps involved. Kearns cautioned that utilizing these strategies can place significant demands on the part of the reader, particularly in the area of working memory, and this can negatively affect reading fluency and reading comprehension. He posited that if we are going to ask students to engage in analyzing words in a way that could place an additional burden on the student, then we want to ensure that the payoff is worth the effort.

Kearns examined a corpus of nearly 15,000 English words derived from The Educator’s Word Frequency Guide (1995) for grades 1–8 and coded the words in General American English (i.e., no other dialects were examined). He developed a program that matched graphemes and phonemes in these words. (Please see his article for a detailed description of his coding.) He was interested in calculating the consistency of the patterns in both bi-syllabic and polysyllabic words. As a clinician, I found his results thought provoking.

For the VC|CV pattern in two syllable words (e.g., rab|bit, nap|kin), Kearns found that ~79% of all cases followed the commonly taught pattern of a short vowel sound (i.e., closed syllable rule). In words of more than two syllables, this pattern held true for ~63% of the cases but was as low as 41% for some vowels (e.g., short o). For the V|CV pattern (e.g., tu|lip, cam|el), the results were even less compelling with ~47% of the cases holding true to the commonly taught pattern of a long vowel sound (i.e., open syllable rule) in bi-syllabic words and only ~33% of the time in 3+ syllable words. There were differences between vowel sounds for this division pattern as well. For example, V|CV division followed the rule for long u 84% of the time versus long i at only 18% of the time. Additionally, “for longer VCV words, [the vowel] has the short sound more often than the long sound in contradiction to the presumed pattern” (p. S153). Kearns concludes “the data suggest that there is really no V|CV division pattern at all.”

Kearns noted that part of the problem with syllable division is that it was developed by trying “…to impose order on the language in places where it does not have especially orderly characteristics” (p. S155). These results suggest that we should be mindful that the rules of syllable division for the VC|CV and V|CV patterns are less well defined and may not have the payoff for students that we had previously thought.

To mitigate this, Kearns highlighted a number of strategies that have been studied and proven successful to help students tackle polysyllabic words. These include:

  • Taking words apart using the rule that every syllable has at least one vowel
  • Using one’s understanding about alternative sounds (i.e., pronunciations) that vowels make to sound out an unknown word (i.e., “flexing” the vowel sound)
  • Identifying morphological units of words (i.e., inflectional endings, base words, roots, affixes)

Those of us in clinical practice understand the importance of teaching ways to tackle those long, imposing words to students with dyslexia or those who struggle with decoding words. Kearns’ findings suggest that as soon as we introduce ways to divide two-syllable words, we should incorporate teaching our students alternative strategies beyond a single “rule” for decoding those words.

*V = vowel, C = consonant

Joanne Marttila Pierson, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

Thanks to my partner at 3LI, Dr. Lauren Katz, for her review of this article and her thoughtful response and suggestions.