What is a syllable?

What is a syllable?
Syllables explained for parents, including details of how primary-school children are taught to identify syllables to help them with spelling and reading and understanding poetry.

What is a syllable?

A syllable is a single, unbroken sound of a spoken (or written) word. Syllables usually contain a vowel and accompanying consonants. Sometimes syllables are referred to as the ‘beats’ of spoken language.

Syllables differ from phonemes in that a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound; the number of syllables in a word is unrelated to the number of phonemes it contains. For example: /b/, /k/, /t/, /ch/, /sh/, /ee/, /ai/, /igh/, /ear/ are all phonemes. The word ‘chat’ is made up of three phonemes (/ch/ /a/ /t/). The word ‘light’ is made up of three phonemes (/l/ /igh/ /t/).  However, both the words ‘chat’ and ‘light’ have only one syllable each.

The number of times you hear a vowel (a, e, i , o, u) in a word is equal to the number of syllables a word has. A good way to identify syllables is to think about whether you need to change your mouth shape to say the next bit of the word / the new syllable.

Learning about syllables in primary school

Learning about syllables is part of learning how to decode and spell words. It helps children understand the conventions of English spelling, including when to double letters and how to pronounce the vowels in words they might not have seen before.

Teachers will often get children to clap out the syllables of a word, to help them to understand the concept. (A good game to introduce syllables is to ask each child to stand up and say their name, while clapping out the syllables.)

For example:

  • Cat   has one syllable (words of one syllable are monosyllabic)
  • Water   has two syllables (wa / ter)
  • Computer   has three syllables (com / pu / ter)
  • Category   has four syllables (cat / e / gor / y)

Syllables in KS1 English

Children in Key Stage 1 will be expected to read words of two syllables. They may be shown how to split the words up into syllables, in order to help them sound them out. For example: if they are shown the word ‘thunder’ and get stuck, a teach may cover the second half of the word (‘der’) and ask them to just sound out the first syllable. Once they have managed this, they uncover the rest of the word and ask them to sound this out.

Children in Key Stage 1 will also learn to spell words with two syllables, at which point they will be encouraged to separate the two syllables themselves, in order to learn the spelling of the whole word.

Syllables in KS2 English

During Key Stage 2, children will progress to learning the spellings of words containing four syllables (or possibly more). They also learn about the use of syllables in poetry.

Children may learn about syllables through writing haikus. A haiku is a Japanese poem with three lines, the first containing 5 syllables, the second containing 7 syllables and the third containing 5 syllables.

This is a haiku about a frog:

Wet amphibian,
Gulps, blinks and flicks out his tongue
To snatch a black fly.

Writing haikus encourages children to think about syllables, but also to think very carefully about their word choices – it may be that one word has too many syllables and does not fit, so they have to think of a new, similar word that fits the given criteria.

Another poetic form based on syllable number is the limerick (the first, second and fifth lines rhyme and have the same number of syllables, usually eight or nine).