Happy #phonologicalfriday everyone! 

Over the next several weeks #phonologicalfriday will feature guest post from Dr. Tom Nicholson, an Emeritus Professor from Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand.

Teaching how to read long words by breaking them into syllables

“There’s a word called ‘persevere’, I know it means ‘keep trying’ but if it was written on a piece of paper it would be too hard.” – a quote from a grade 7 student

T: “What word is this? RAIN

S: “Rain”

T: What word is this? COAT

S: “Coat”

T: What word is this? RAINCOAT

S: I don’t know that word – never seen it before

Some children can read one-syllable words such as “rain” and “coat” but “raincoat” is too difficult, even though it is just those same two words put together. The do not see that this longer word is simply made up of smaller chunks that they do know how to read.

There are six types of syllable. The first two are the most important – they account for three out of every four words.

We teach the six types in this sequence:

  1. Closed syllable, where the vowel is followed by a consonant and has a short sound /a/, as in RAB/BIT 
  2. Open syllable, where the vowel stands alone at the end of the syllable and has a long sound /oe/ as in RO/BOT, OPEN 
  3. The final-e syllable – it signals the open vowel sound as in TIRADE 
  4. The r-controlled syllable – it changes the sound of the vowel. The vowel and R stay together, as in CUR/TAIN, PER/SE/VERE, THIR/TY, STAR/LING 
  5. The vowel team syllable – it has two vowels making one sound as in FLOW/ER 
  6. The consonant plus –LE syllable – it starts with the consonant that precedes –LE, as in RI/FLE and BUB/BLE

The following nonwords include the six different syllable types:

cosnuvjoden vofute 


Several studies of syllable analysis have found positive effects for teaching this skill.

Battachariya and Ehri (2004) wrote the word down, explained what it meant, pronounced the word aloud, e.g., “finish”, showed how to divide it into syllables (put thumb over one syllable, then thumb over the other syllable), put the syllables together and pronounced it. They taught only one syllable rule, i.e., that each syllable has a vowel sound. Where to split the syllable was a flexible decision as to which break sounded more like the actual word.

Diliberto, Beatty, Flowers and Algozzine (2008) taught students to first break out any prefixes and suffixes in the word, then to break the base word into syllables.

Kearns and Whaley (2019) review a number of studies. One suggestion was that students should try the short vowel sound before the long vowel sound when breaking the word into syllables because the short sound is more frequent.

  • Once the student breaks the written word into syllables, have the pupil blend the syllables together to see if they can figure out what the word says 
  • There are always exceptions so that it is best to try different ways to break the word until it makes sense as a word, e.g., CA/BIN or CAB/IN – until it works
  • Isolated exercises do not mean they will transfer the learning to real reading of text, so encourage students to attempt multi-syllable words in real text e.g., easier text: “I’ll just have to go back to my cave and have spi/der sand/wich and liz/ard tail pie”; more complex text: “The frost is com/plete/ly bro/ken up. You look down the long per/spec/tive of Ox/ford Street, the gas lights mourn/ful/ly re/flec/ted on the wet pave/ment”


Dr. Tom Nicholson is a freelance writer, formerly a professor of education at Massey University in New Zealand and a member of the Reading Hall of Fame. One day, in the future, he plans to have his own website, write a children’s book on phonics and how it can help you to read, and learn how to sketch with proper perspective.

You can contact Dr. Nicholson at: t.nicholson@massey.ac.nz


Battacharya, A., & Ehri, L. C. (2004). Graphosyllabic analysis helps adolescent struggling readers read and spell words. Journal of Learning disabilities, 37(4), 331-348

Diliberto,J. A., Beattie, J. R., Flowers, C. P., & Algozzine, R. F. (2008). Effects of teaching syllable skills instruction on reading achievement in struggling middle school readers. Literacy Research and Instruction, 48(1), 14-27.

Kearns, D. M., & Whaley, V. M. (2019). Helping students with dyslexia read long words using syllables and morphemes. Teaching Exceptional Children, 51(3), 212-225.

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