The Six English Syllable Types

The Six English Syllable Types

In English, there are 15 vowel phonemes (sounds) but only 5 vowel letters. (Okay–7 if you count -y- and -w-). But how does that work– with twice as many vowel sounds to represent as there are letters to represent them!? For his 1806 dictionary, Noah Webster figured it out (and changed the spelling of some words to make it work more consistently).  Basically, context predicts the vowel’s letter-sound association. The syllable type is largely determined by what comes after the vowel in the syllable.  In more than 90% of single-syllable English words, the vowel sound’s pronunciation is consistent with its syllable type. That would seem to be useful and important, but note these important caveats: 

 

  • First, a syllable’s type predicts the pronunciation of the vowel only in stressed syllables. In an unstressed syllable, the vowel is typically pronounced as a weak and indistinct “uh” or sometimes “ih”, no matter how it is spelled. So, in words like “seamless”, the unstressed 2nd vowel spelled -e- is pronounced “uh”. The technical term for this kind of unstressed vowel is schwa.   (Fun fact: Most words have more than one syllable, making schwa the most frequent vowel sound in English!) 

 

  • Second, the English language freely absorbs words from other languages, and words with origins other than English do not necessarily follow the syllable types patterns. While the majority of commonly-used English words follow these patterns, there are plenty of words that don’t.  In addition, using the syllable types patterns helps to know how to pronounce the spoken word. 

For example, the word anorak has three syllables, but unless you have heard this word spoken you won’t know if the middle syllable is an open type (an-o-rak)  or an r-controlled type (an-or-ak). An anorak is a hooded pullover jacket originally made of fur and worn in the Arctic. It’s pronounced “an-uh-rak” or “ah-nuh-rahk”. The middle syllable is open but unstressed (schwa).  

 

What are the six English syllable types?

The Syllable Type

The Pattern

The Sounds

More Examples

closed  

One or more consonants come after the vowel. (The consonant “closes” the syllable.)   Closed syllables are usually taught first because they are the most frequent syllable type in English and also the most regular.

The vowel is pronounced with its so-called short or lax sound:  

-a- as in “apple” 

-e- as in “egg” 

-i- as in “insect” 

-o- as in “octopus”” 

-u- as in “up” 

bat

bet

bi

bot

but

   

fantasti

(fan /tas/ tic )

r-controlled

An -r- after a vowel becomes part of the vowel, controlling its sound 

-ar- as in “arm”

-or- as in “sort” 

-er- as in “fern”

-ir- as in “fir”

-ur” as in “fur” 

par

por

pert

shirt

purse

open

The vowel ends the syllable.  

The vowel is pronounced with its so-called long or tense sound:

-a- as in “ta-ble” 

-e- as in “he” 

-i- as in “hi” 

-o- as in “so” 

-u- as in  “u-nit”

pa-gan

ve-to 

di-et 

O-hio

su-per 

silent -e

The syllable ends with an -e- that has no sound of its own but that signals that the main vowel is pronounced with its so-called long or tense sound. 

The main vowel is pronounced with its so-called long or tense sound.

-a-e  as in “made” 

-i-e as in “five” 

-o-e as in “hope” 

-u-e as in  “cute

lake 

meme

smile 

bone 

use

vowel team

The vowel sound is represented by two or more vowel letters.  Because there are often several vowel teams that spell the same sound (as in meat & meet) the correct spelling of vowel teams requires visual (orthographic) memory.

The vowel is spelled with more than one letter, for example: 

-ai- as in “brain” 

-ee- as in “beef” 

-ea- as in “meat” 

-ea- as in “bread”

-oy- as in “boy”

-oi- as in “boil”  

-oo-as in “book”

-oo- as in “room” 

lay 

clea

sweater

boil

cow

loud

consonant +le

This syllable pattern is a consonant followed by -le-. It occurs only at the end of a multisyllable word.

This syllable sounds like the consonant + “uh-l” (but the spelling looks like it should be “luh”), for example:

-ble- as in “ta-ble”

-tle- as in “rat-tle”

-ple- as in “sta-ple”

The vowel sound in this syllable is an unstressed schwa ( /ə/).

lit-tle 

ter-ri-ble 

cra-dle

© Lexercise

 

From Learning to Read to Reading to Learn

After a certain amount of exposure to reading, most people learn the syllable types’ pronunciation patterns unconsciously, without knowing they have learned them and without the need for explicit instruction.  They soon get to the point that, when they see an unfamiliar word, they apply these unconscious patterns to pronouncing it. At that point, they can teach themselves new words! They are ready to move from learning to read to reading to learn!

 

Try it!  Here are some real but very uncommon words. You may never have heard these words pronounced. Can you pronounce them? 

hent

zarf

garboil

juberous

epizeuxis

Students who struggle to reach that “self-teaching” tipping point benefit from explicit instruction and practice with word structure patterns, including the six syllable types and other structured literacy concepts.

 

If you are looking for reading, writing, and spelling resources, make sure you sign up for our blog below. If your child is struggling with reading or spelling, contact us or take our free dyslexia test.

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Sandie Barrie Blackley, MA/CCC

MA/CCC - Cofounder and CKO

Sandie is a speech-language pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in the private practice sector. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and founder/owner of the Language & Learning Clinic, PLLC, a private practice in Elkin, NC, and Greensboro, NC, specializing in communication disorders, including disorders of reading and written language.