How to teach English syllables
Summary: Teaching counting and pronouncing the right number of beats in English words.
Many teachers and learners focus their pronunciation practice mainly or entirely on individual sounds like /b/ and /v/, perhaps along with their accompanying phonemic symbols. This is a pity, as there are loads of other pronunciation points which are at least as useful for improving students’ listening and speaking skills, for example:
- Counting and pronouncing the right number of syllables
- Word stress
- Sentence stress
- Linking etc in natural speech
The number of syllables in a word is at the top of that list for a reason, because it really is the basis on which the other important points can be built. For example, you obviously can’t ask students to work out which syllable in a word, phrase or sentence is most strongly stressed if they don’t know how to split it into syllables yet. Counting syllables can also be really useful for listening comprehension, e.g. in identifying if the person speaking has just said “thirteenth” or “thirtieth”.
Although you might want to move onto the other important points in the list above fairly quickly, it is worth spending some time dealing with some of the specific problems that students have with identifying and producing the right number of syllables. Things that students can have difficulty with include:
- Pronouncing consonant clusters (like the “str” and “ngths” in “strengths”) without adding extra syllables
- Making sure that they don’t add extra syllables when they pronounce English words which end or start with sounds that don’t go in that position in their language (e.g. making sure that they don’t say “pasto” for “past”, “Espain” for “Spain”)
- Pronouncing contractions without adding unnecessary syllables, e.g. making sure that they don’t add a schwa sound in the middle of “we’ve” (which should be a one-syllable homophone of “weave” rather than a slightly changed version of “we have”)
- Understanding that diphthongs and long vowel sounds like those in “ear” and “see” are still single syllables
- Understanding that schwa counts as a syllable (so “fallen” should be pronounced with two syllables)
- Pronouncing words with two vowel sounds next to each other with the right number of syllables (not trying to pronouncing words like “co-ordinate”, “prettier” and “thirtieth” with a single incredibly long vowel)
- The pronunciation of “-ed” endings in Past Simple and past participle verbs
- The pronunciation of “-(e)s” endings in plurals and third person Present Simple
- Understanding that doubled consonants like “ll” are usually pronounced the same as single letters in English, and so have the same number of syllables
The rules for counting syllables in English is actually extremely simple – one vowel sound equals one syllable, meaning “been” and “beans” have one syllable but “singing” and “pasta” have two syllables. It can be worth pointing out that this rules includes schwa. If students aren’t convinced that schwa adds a syllable, ask them if the unstressed form of the determiner “a” has no syllables!
If students have problems understanding that “ear” and “food” have one vowel sound each but “layer” and “co-op” have two vowel sounds each, you can briefly explain the extra consonants that appear between the two vowel sounds (making them like “lei-yer” and “coe-wop”). This will also come in useful later on when they look at linked speech. If they have difficulty working out what counts as a single vowel sound, simply tell them that it is one vowel sound is one symbol on the phonemic chart (including diphthongs). Any combination of more than one vowel on the phonemic chart counts as two vowel sounds and therefore two syllables. It can also be worth pointing out that the words that they are having problems with have one vowel sound that is already long or a diphthong, so making that vowel sound even longer is impossible.
The rule for counting syllables is different in many other languages, for example in ones like Japanese and Italian where most or all consonants are in pairs with vowels, like the “po”, “ta” and “to” syllables “potato” in English. This can cause some confusion when students who are used to those languages are trying to work out that “treats” is still one syllable (because it only has the one vowel sound /i:/). However, even students who initially have such difficulties should be able to pick up looking at a written word and working out how many vowel sounds it has in a single lesson. If they do find that tricky, it can help to ask them to identify and pronounce the different vowel sounds in each word and/ or to make beats with their hand (on their other hand or the table) as they pronounce the word, making sure that the beats are in time with the vowel sounds.
If students have problems making sure that they don’t add unnecessary extra syllables when they speak, the best approach is usually to build up the word sound by sound, making sure that they keep the same number of syllables each time. For example, they could say “ip”, “rip”, “trip” and then “strip”, making sure that they match the rhythm of their hand as they bring it down just once each time that they speak. Again, it can help to count the number of vowel sounds if they are not sure how many syllables they should be hearing and producing with words like “strengths” and “strengthens”.
The rule for adding or not adding a syllable with “-ed” endings in Past Simple and past participle is fairly straightforward – if the original word ends with a /d/ sound or /t/ sound, the ending sounds like “id”. As “id” has a vowel sound, that makes the past form one syllable longer than the infinitive in examples like “need – needed” and “want – wanted”. All other “-ed” endings are just pronounced /d/ or /t/ without another vowel, and so the number of syllables stays the same from the infinitive to the “-ed” form, e.g. one syllable for both “pass” and “passed”. It can be useful to choose words for the presentation stage that have homophones or rhyming words whose spelling more clearly shows their number of syllables (like “past” for “passed”). If students need a reason for the “id” pronunciation after “d” or “t” endings, demonstrate how impossible it is to say “need-d” without adding a vowel sound. Then explain that /t/ is basically the same sound as /d/, just unvoiced.
The rule and reasons for adding extra syllables with “-es” endings is similar to those for “-ed”. After sibilant sounds similar to /s/ it is almost impossible to pronounce a /s/ or /z/ ending without adding a vowel sound in between, leading to one extra syllable with “passes”, “buzzes”, “flushes”, “churches”, “judges”, etc. Luckily most of these words have the “-es” (rather than just “-s”) ending to help show that pronunciation.
The rule for pronouncing contractions is basically just the “one vowel sound = one syllable” rule again. Difficulties can again be with identifying schwa and taking it seriously in words like “it’ll”, “should’ve” and “we’d’ve” (all two syllables). Homophones (like “isle” for “I’ll”) and rhyming words (like “bees” for “she’s”) can be useful when presenting getting the number of syllables in contractions right.
English syllables classroom activities
In general, each activity that you do in class can focus on identifying the right number of syllables and/ or pronouncing the right number of syllables, and this can be done by looking at the written form and/ or by listening to the words. The activities below cover all four possibilities. For all of the activities, it is generally best to start with simple words whose spelling clearly show the number of syllables like “tomato” and then move onto examples with the difficulties mentioned above which are relevant to your students.
Syllable sequences logic puzzles
If you choose words that students have difficulties with, the basic task of asking students to count syllables and write a number after each word, phrase or sentence can be fairly useful. However, there are few more tedious and unmotivating classroom activities than “count”. This game adds a bit more fun and challenge to that activity.
After you collect some words that you want students to analyse, arrange them together in sections where the number of syllables in the different lines in one section have some kind of relationship to each other. For example, if students look at a section that includes “head”, “horror”, “fun”, “funny”, “great” and “hidden”, they should be able to work out that the number of syllables alternates between one syllable and two syllables going from word from word. Other possible relationships between the words in one section include:
- The number of syllables has some kind of progression over the whole section, such as going up and then down in the number of syllables. For example, one section could go one syllable, then two syllables, then three syllables, then four syllables, then three syllables, then two syllables, then back down to one syllable.
- All the lines in one section have the same number of syllables.
You can either have a different pattern in each section, or you can have an easy section to set the pattern and then ask students then pronounce the later sections in the same way. You can then move onto a different pattern on the next page. When you go through the answers as a class, ask them each time what they think the pattern is in each section, then ask them to pronounce the words in that way.
Matching collocations by syllables
Make a list of some useful collocations such as compound nouns, with at least some which include pronunciation difficulties for your students such as consonant clusters. Split the collocations into halves and arrange them in a way which means that students can use the number of syllables to help match the halves, e.g. four syllable collocations split at different places like “have” + “a party”, “online” + “banking” and “pouring with” + “rain”. As well as a group of collocations with the same number of syllables as each other, you could do the activity with a set of collocations with more and more syllables in each, e.g. “cloak” + “room” (2), “dry” + “cleaning” (3), “freelance” + “writer” (4), and “TV” + “presenter” (5). Tell students what the rule is and ask them to match the collocations in that way.
How many syllables simplest responses game
Give students two cards which represent two different numbers of syllables, e.g. a card with a single circle (“o”) to represent a one-syllable word and a card with two circles next to each other (“oo”) to represent two syllables. Read out some words with those numbers of syllables and ask the students to race to hold up the right cards. Make sure that you include some words which will be tricky for your students such as “pants”, “co-op” and “we’ve”.
After a few minutes of playing the listening and racing to hold up cards game, give students a worksheet with the same words on to label with the number of syllables. Check their answers as a class, asking them to pronounce each word and making sure that they do so with the right number of syllables as you do so. Then ask them to play the same racing to holding up cards game in groups, going around the class to check that the person with the teacher role is actually saying the correct number of syllables each time.
Livelier students such as young learners can indicate that they understood the number of syllables in different ways, for example:
- Racing to slap the two (or more) syllable cards on the table
- Running up and down the room to slap the two (or more) syllable cards stuck to the walls
- Putting their body into two (or more) different positions, e.g. standing for three syllables and sitting on the floor for two syllables
All of these can also work with more than two different lengths of word, e.g. cards on all four walls for between one syllable and four syllables.
Syllables the same or different simplest responses game
This game is very similar to the one above, but with students listening to two words and racing to hold up “The same” or “Different” cards that they have been given. For example, if they hear “bully” and “bullying”, they should quickly hold up their “Different” cards (because the first is two syllables and the second is three syllables). They can then label the same words on a worksheet with “S” for “the same” and “D” for “different”, before playing the same holding up cards game in groups.
Syllables sentence building scrabble
Make a pack of cards with a mix of different cards, with each kind of card representing words with a particular number of syllables, e.g. some of the cards having three circles in a line (“ooo”) to represent three-syllable words. Make a set of around 50 or 60 cards per group. The number of cards of each kind should match what words students are likely to need to make sentences, e.g. more two-syllable than four-syllable cards and few five-syllable and six-syllable cards. However, you should include fewer one-syllable cards than we would naturally use in order to make the activity more challenging.
The activity is basically for students to take turns making sentences from the cards, e.g. “o” + “oo” + “o” + “ooo” for “I wanted three sandwiches”. If everyone else accepts that the sentence is grammatically correct and makes sense and that they have identified the correct number of syllables in each word, they can put those cards on the table in front of them and score that many points. The words which they have in front of them cannot be used in future sentences, making the game progressively more difficult as the simplest cards (usually meaning one-syllable ones) disappear.
There are many ways of organising this game. The simplest is just to put all the cards face up in the middle of the table and for students to take turns using whichever cards they like to make as long sentences as they can. This will naturally become more difficult as the number of cards in the middle of the table reduces, but there are also other ways of making it more challenging. Probably the most useful for making sure students master different numbers of syllables is telling them that they can’t use two words with the same number of syllables in one sentence. You can also have more scrabble-style rules with sentences crossing each other on the table in front of them, but they’ll need to write the sentences down to do this as they are otherwise unlikely to remember what word each card represented.
Syllables dialogue building game
Ask students to write a dialogue where each line has one more syllable than the previous one, starting with one syllable for the first line. For example, their dialogue could start:
A: Hi (1)
B: Hi Steve. (2)
A: How are things? (3)
B: Pretty good. You? (4)
A: Not too bad, thank you. (5)
After they finish writing their dialogues, other groups could check that the lines do progress in the right way. There could then be points for the longest correct dialogue, the one that makes the most sense, the one that is most amusing etc (maybe voting on some of these things).
After students do these things with their own dialogues, you could give them a cut-up jigsaw dialogue of the same kind that you have made, with one line of the dialogue per card. Ask students to put the dialogue in order by numbers of syllables and by the logic of the conversation, then to practise it in their group, making sure that they get the pronounce the lines with the right number of syllables.
Syllable cards classifying race, pelmanism and snap
Make a collection of words with different numbers of syllables and put one word on each card of a pack of about 50 cards. These could be words with just two different numbers of syllables (e.g. two syllable words and three syllable words), or three or more categories. The games work best if there are the same number of each card, but they can still work with different numbers of cards in each. The three games below can be played in the order given, or just one or two of the games is probably better unless there are loads of useful and tricky words in the cards that you have prepared.
The simplest game to play with these cards is to ask students to work together to put them into columns by number of syllables as quickly as possible. When they think they have finished, you can tell them how many there should be in each column in order to help with the task and to make them double check their answers.
A more game-like activity is Pelmanism, also known as The Memory Game. Students spread all the cards face-down on the table and take turns turning over two cards to try to find pairs of words with the same number of syllables as each other, e.g. two three-syllable words. If they do so, they can keep those cards and score two points. If the two cards which they turned over don’t match, they must put them back in the exact same places as they got them from (so that people can use their memories to match them to other words which come up later).
A more active and lively matching by number of syllables game is Snap. Students deal out all the cards but can’t look at the words that they are holding. They take turns quickly turning over the top card from their pack and putting it face up on the table. If the card that they put down matches the one that their partner had just put down before (in terms of number of syllables), everyone should race to shout out “Snap!” The first person to shout out “Snap” when the last two cards match gets all the cards on the table, and the person with the most cards at the end of the game wins. If someone says “Snap” when the last cards don’t match, that person has to give two cards to each other player as a penalty. Rather than students shouting out the traditional word “Snap”, it could be more useful to get them to shout out the number of syllables that they think both words have (“One syllable!” etc), hum the number of syllables (“Hmmm hmmm” for a two-syllable word, etc), or bang the table the right number of times.
It’s also possible to play all three games above with pictures on the cards rather than words. The pictures should represent words which are difficult for your students to pronounce such as “squirrel”, but if they think that the picture looks like a different word (e.g. “chipmunk”) and their partners agree, they can also use it that way.
Syllables brainstorming races
Students work together to brainstorm as many words as they can which match what you say (e.g. “One-syllable adjectives” or “Three-syllable Past Simple verbs”) within two minutes. They then pass their list to another group for them to check, or you can ask them to take turns saying words to add to the list on the board, with one point for each correct thing that no one else has said yet. You could also have points off for wrong answers.
Collect at least 11 words with the same number of syllables that students could have problems with, e.g. 12 one-syllable words that have consonant clusters. Put all the words in a six-by-six table, one word per cell. Arrange the words so that they all connect to each other and together trace a route from the top left cell of the table to the bottom right cell. It’s best if the connection between the words is just up, down, left or right (not diagonal). Fill all the other cells in the table with words with different numbers of syllables, e.g. two-syllable and three-syllable words which also have consonant clusters like “strengthen”. Ask students to trace routes through the mazes by counting the number of syllables and making sure that they only join up ones with the right number. Groups that finish quickly can check that all the other words in the table have a different number of syllables.
If possible, make at least two or three such mazes. After students to do each one, go through the answers as a class, making sure that they pronounce the words with the right number of syllables as you do so.
I’m not a big fan of hangman as it is usually played, but it can be useful speaking and listening practice if hints are given during the game. One useful hint can be how many syllables the word that they have to guess has, e.g. “It’s a one syllable verb”. Students guess a letter or (better) sound that they think is in the word. If their guess is wrong, the person who chose that word gets a point, but the people guessing get another hint before they have to guess again. As I also find to be true with normal hangman, with EFL learners this activity actually works best with sentences rather than single words.