What Are Syllables: Syllable Division Rules

Written by: Brooke Vitale


Cover image for an article on syllable-division

What Is a Syllable?

Often referred to as the “beats” of a word, a syllable is a single, unbroken sound within a spoken word. 

When it comes to syllable division, there is one hard and fast rule. Every syllable must contain a vowel. While syllables usually contain a consonant (or pair of consonants known as a digraph), this isn't strictly necessary. Look, for example, at the words open, apron, and equine. Each of these words begin with a syllable that contains only a single vowel.

Pro Tip: Syllables like these are called open syllables because the vowel is not closed in by a consonant. 

How Do Syllables Differ from Phonemes?

A phoneme is the smallest possible unit of sound. There are 44 phonemes in the English language. It is the combination of these 44 phones that make up the entirety of the English language. But phonemes and syllables are not the same. That’s because a syllable might contain more than one phoneme.

Take for example the word bird. This is a one syllable word that contains three phonemes: /b/ /er/ /d/.

The consonants b and d appear at the beginning and ending of the syllable, with the vowel sound in the middle.

Here’s another example: the word crispy can be broken into two syllables: crisp-y. Within this word, there are 6 unique phonemes: /k/ /r/ /ĭ/ /s/ /p/ /ē/.

As is evident here, the number of phonemes in a word has no bearing on the number of syllables, nor does the number of syllables impact the number of phonemes in a word.

Examples of Syllables

Below are some examples of words with different syllable counts:

  • Fish has one syllable
  • Carpet has two syllables: car-pet
  • Invader has three syllables: in-va-der
  • Population has four syllables: pop-u-la-tion

Counting Syllables

  • A word with one syllable is called monosyllabic.
  • A word with two syllables is called disyllabic,
  • A word with three syllables is called trisyllabic
  • A word with four syllables is called quadrisyllabic.
  • Words with more than one syllable can also be called multisyllabic or polysyllabic.

Fun fact: The word Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis has more syllables than any other word in the English language: 19 syllables!

Why Is it Important to Teach Syllable Division?

Syllables are one of the most basic units of speech. Being able to break a word apart into syllables, known as syllable division, is a key component of phonics, decoding text, and learning how to spell words. 

It is not uncommon for children who are sounding out words to break the word into syllables. Syllable division makes it easier to determining the phonemes that make up a word, which in turn makes decoding that word more manageable. 

One reason syllable division works is because our minds are better able to hold on to information in chunks rather than in many small pieces. By breaking a word into syllables, a child can remember several chunks of information (the full syllable) rather than the many smaller pieces of information that make up the whole word.

Take for example the word motorcycle. This can be broken into four syllables: mo-tor-cy-cle.

Syllable division enables children to break apart the phonemes of each chunk separately. That’s four chunks of information to remember rather than 8 individual phonemes.

But in order for children to break a word into its component syllables, they must first learn HOW  to syllable division works.

How to Divide Syllables in 5 Steps

Step 1: Look for prefixes and suffixes

One of the best habits a child can get into when learning syllable division is to identify the prefixes and suffixes in a word. By separating these out, students can focus on the base word that needs decoding before adding the prefix or suffix back to the word. 

  • Common prefixes include: re-, un-, pre-, dis-, and mis-.
  • Common suffixes include:  -s, -es, -ing, -ed, -er, -est, -ly, -ment, -ful, and -less.

Encourage children to add a syllable division line after a prefix or before a suffix.

Step 2: Identify the letters that make a single sound

Not every letter in a word stands alone. Once you have removed the prefixes and suffixes, look for the letters that work together to form a single sound. This might include digraphs like CH, CK, or PH; R-controlled vowels like AR, ER, and IR; Vowel Teams like EA, OA, and OO; or diphthongs like AW and OU.

Step 3: Identify the vowels in a word

All syllables must contain at least one vowel (A, E, I, O, U, or sometimes Y).

Write a V under the vowels.

Pro Tip: A syllable may contain more than one vowel if it contains a vowel team—a set of two vowels working together to make one sound, like ai or ie—or if one vowel is silent, like the e in nice or cake. 

Step 4: Identify the pattern of consonants and vowels in a word.

There are 6 primary syllable patterns: VCCV, C+LE, VCE, VV, VCCCV, and VCCCCV. Note that each of these begin and ends with a vowel. 

Put a C under each of the consonants (or digraphs). Then identify which syllable pattern the word follows.

Step 5: Syllable Division

Each syllable pattern has its own rules to guide syllable division. Divide the words according to these rules, then read the full word.

Open and closed syllables

Open syllable

An open syllable is a word unit that ends in a vowel. These syllables always form long vowel sounds.

Some examples of open syllables are the words me and go. In a multisyllabic word, examples include the first syllables in o-pen, vi-tal, and sci-ence. In these cases, syllable division rules require the syllable to end after the open vowel.

Closed syllable

A closed syllable is a single word unit that ends with a consonant. Closed syllables always have short vowel sounds. Some examples of closed syllables include hat, fan, and cub. In multisyllabic words, examples include the first syllables in hab-it, in-sane, and mis-ter. In these cases, syllable division rules require the syllable to end after the consonant following the vowel.

The Magic E (Vowel-Consonant-E) syllable

Also known as “magic E syllables,” VCE syllables end in a silent e. The addition of the E gives the vowel a long vowel sound. In the cases of multisyllabic VCE syllables, the VCE portion typically appears at the end of the word.

Some VCE syllable examples include lime, insane, umpire, and grade.

Syllable division rules

The English language is strange, and there will always be exceptions to every rule, but syllable division breaks typically follow one of six rules:

Rule 1: The VC/CV Syllable Division Rule

The VC/CV Syllable Division Rule states that syllables can generally be broken apart where two consonants come together. But, and this is a big but, the two consonants must form two unique sounds. That is to say, the split must happen between two consonant phonemes. Two letters that make one sound, such as SH or CK are called digraphs and should never be broken apart.

Take a look at the following examples. Note that digraphs and vowel teams stay together:

Rule 2: The C+le Syllable Division Rule

The C+le Syllable Division Rule states that a word ending in -le should be broken before the consonant so that the last syllable is the consonant (C) + le.

Take a look at the following examples:

Rule 3: The V/CV and VC/V Syllable Division Rule

The V/CV and VC/V Syllable Division Rule states that a syllable break should come either before or after a consonant that comes between two vowels. This can be a tricky one as it requires understanding whether the first syllable contains a long vowel or a short vowel.

When the first syllable contains a long vowel, the syllable split should occur after the vowel and before the consonant.

When the first syllable contains a short vowel, the syllable split should occur after the consonant.

Try asking your child to say the word both ways to see which sounds right. 

Take a look at the following examples:

Rule 4: The V/V Syllable Division Rule

The V/V Syllable Division Rule states that a syllable break should come between two vowels that do not work together as a team. This is a more complicated syllable division rule, as it requires that children understand vowel teams, which are typically taught later in their phonics education.

Take a look at the following V/V examples. Note where the vowels make two distinct sounds, as opposed to working together as a vowel team.

Rule 5: The VC/CCV and VCC/CV Syllable Division rule

The VC/CCV and VCC/CV Syllable Division Rule states that when three consonants appear together, the syllable break should come after either the first consonant or the second consonant. 

In order to determine where to put the syllable break, look for digraphs or common letter blends, as these should stay together.

Some common blends include st, cl, cr, dr, mp, nk, and br. 

For a comprehensive list of blends, check out my article Consonant Blends.

Take a look at the VC/CCV and VCC/CV examples below:

Rule 6: Syllable Division after a prefix and before a suffix

This is an easier syllable division rule to follow. Syllable breaks always follow prefixes such as re-, un-, and in- and come before suffixes such as -es and -ing.

The exception to this syllable division rule is the suffix -ed, which features a silent e.

Take a look at the prefix and suffix syllable break examples below.

How to Practice Syllable Identification

Feel their mouth

One way for children to understand syllable division is to pay attention to when their mouth changes shape. Each time a new syllable is spoken, the jaw will open again. Try asking your child to put their hand on their chin and say the following words:

  • Pineapple
  • Cheesecake
  • Blueberry
  • Frog

How many times did their jaw move with each word? It should have moved three times for pineapple, two times for cheesecake, three times for blueberry, and once for frog. Each of those movements is a syllable.

Clap out syllables

Another way to count syllables is to clap them out. Try asking your child to say a longer word, clapping their hand each time their mouth shifts to a new shape.

Write a haiku

A haiku is a special kind of poem that contains 5 syllables on the first and third line and 7 syllables on the second line. Encourage kids to write (or say) haikus to practice syllable recognition. Here’s one example:

In the bright classroom
Kids run and play all day long.
It is a fun place.

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