The 'usefulness' of the 'rules' of syllabification

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The 'usefulness' of the 'rules' of syllabification

Post by maizie »

Many thanks to AngusM for this:

"I've been doing a little googling on this subject for the past few weeks and I thought I'd share with you all a bit of what I've found. A lot of it may be old news to you.

I've communicated with Michael Bend of ABeCeDarian (SP approach) here in the US and Tom Burkard. Bend replied to me as follows:

"That's an interesting question. One reference I have, (Moats, Speech to Print) attributes the categorization of syllables into the 6 types to Noah Webster as mechanism for figuring out syllable division in his dictionary. (Unfortunately, Moats repeatedly refers to Noah Webster as Samuel Webster.) Venezky (American Way of Spelling, pp. 101 ff.) has some interesting discussion of open and closed syllables, without discussing the historical origins of the terms. He describes the use of geminate consonants to signal a "short" (checked, lax) vowel sound for the immediately preceding vowel letter (e.g., ladder). I believe that the distinction between open and closed syllables does exist generally speaking among linguists, but you would have to confer with a linguist or two to be sure.

I suspect that Gillingham and or Stillman picked up the Webster categorization of syllables and applied it to their reading instruction. The original Orton people were working very often with quite bright dyslexic children, and so they tried to use the students' ability to understand logic and rules to help them understand the details of the spelling system that had they could not grasp through less systematic exposure because of their perceptual deficits. I agree entirely, however, with the statement you quote from Tom Burkard regarding the utility of teaching this categorization scheme (as well as his praise for Engelmann)."

Tom Burkard responded that he would never teach rules "if we can possibly avoid it. For reading, never. For spelling, only for the highest-utility rules: dropping the 'e'; doubling the final consonant; and changing the y to i. Even if rules were more reliable, as they are in many other languages, they are of dubious utility for most children, and positively disastrous for children with poor working memory. With the latter, by the time they have recalled the rule (and what is going to trigger this recall?), they will have forgotten what it is supposed to apply to; there is just too much to hold in the head at once. One of the best authorities on this, as on most other issues in teaching basic skills, is Sigfried Englemann. The best procedure is to model the correct response, and have the child practice it."

I responded today to Michael Bend as follow:

"I've just re-read Marilyn Adams 'Beginning to Read' chapter entitled Orthographic Processing since your last email. On page 133, she confirms pretty much what you have said: Noah Webster is the culprit and his rules for syllabification "may or may not correspond to the way in which an able reader breaks words up." She goes on to say that "There is, moreover, no obvious instructional purpose in worrying about whether or not they do."!

My real question though was to do with what the proponents of syllabication rules specifically hope to achieve from teaching them. Are these rules supposed to help reading (segmenting & blending) or spelling (segmenting) - or both? Adams agrees with Jenny Chew on this. She says that if syllabification (what she calls it) is supposed to help reading it is a 'circularly unproductive' technique - because, in order to break a word down into syllables, the reader must first sound the word out. But "being able to sound the word out was the goal of breaking the word into syllables in the first place'! She concludes further on that "efforts to teach children how to divide words into syllables have generally produced little measurable improvement either in children's ability" to generalize these rules "or in their overall vocabulary and reading comprehension scores".

The same logic applies to spelling. Jenny Chew says in one of her posts to me on this "The problem with the syllable-type rules that you mention ...., strikes me as being that if you already know that you are dealing with (say) a vowel-consonant-e syllable or a vowel-team syllable, then you probably already know the spelling of that syllable!"

The solution for Adams is simple "to induce children to focus on the the likely sequences that comprise syllables, words and frequent blends and digraphs. As the children become familiar with these spelling patterns their ability to syllabify will naturally emerge along with the automaticity....". Beyond that she suggests that, to develop "solid word recognition skills", "children should read lots and often". My only tentative disagreement here would be to her suggestion that children should focus on blends, digraphs and segments of words because, to my mind, this muddies the waters - adding another layer of writing units on top of the GPCs. As Diane McGuinness has shown, no writing system ever uses more than one sound unit (with possible exception of Chinese - which is morphemic-syllabic?) and teaching more than one (i.e. the phoneme) just confuses children.

Other research I have found basically agrees with Adams. Linnea Ehri did a study in 2004 entitled "Graphosyllabic analysis helps adolescent struggling readers to read and spell words". She eliminates "rigid application of dictionary-based syllabication rules dictating the correct location of syllable boundaries" and instead gives students the flexibility to chose their own boundaries (so long as vowels are assigned to separate syllables). Her study showed that this approach (basically like SP's and **'s chunking and morphemic approach) was effective whereas the more rigid approach was not. She says "it was more important to teach children to form complete graphosyllabic connections between spellings and pronunciations within words than to teach them to apply rules...".

Even Shefelbine (1990) who found some positives in teaching syllabication adopted a flexible approach where rules were abandoned in favor of 'locating alternative decodable chunks'. Greif (1981) found that:

"..... only 45.5% of open syllable word and 56% of closed syllable words would be correctly pronounced using the understanding that in closed syllable words a short vowel sound should be used and in open syllables a long vowel sound should be used."

A paper by Vicky Vachon in the Learning Disability Quarterly (March 22, 2003) agrees:

"Syllabication rules are seldom taught today for a number of reasons: (a) the rules are too numerous and complex to remember, (b) most teachers have concluded that mastery of the rules did not enhance their students' decoding skills, and, most important, (c) research has demonstrated little relationship between knowing the rules and successful reading (Canney & Schreiner, 1977). Instead of teaching complex syllabication rules, students must be exposed to the visual patterns found in English, and flexibility must be emphasized (Cunningham, 1998; Shefelbine, 1990). Instead of using complex rules to divide words into parts, readers are taught to divide words into decodable chunks by first looking quickly at almost all letters, and then segmenting big words into parts based on familiar patterns found in words."

It seems clear from all this that reasonable people agree that strict adherence to Websterian syllabication rules is a waste of time. All the more amazing that O-G systems like Wilson continue to complicate matters by using them! Are they 'evidence-based' or not?"