Teaching American-English: How to Succeed with Syllables

Teaching American-English: How to Succeed with Syllables

Teaching (Yourself) American-English: How to Apply Syllable-Stress Patterns, Phrase Focus, and Sentence Rhythm for Clear Speech    

So in addition to—or even before—learning to enunciate vowel and consonant sounds, clear speakers of English will want to deal with syllablesthe number of them in words or phrases, their arrangement in stress patterns, their use as focal points, and their rhythm in connected speech. 

But of course, impatient as we are, we want to start with the fun stuff! The Rebuses of yore—in which letters representing sounds were subtracted from and added to the names of pictures—have evolved into cleverly labeled gift items, Syllable-Rime Puzzles“Wackie Wordies” or “Plexors,” and other inventive pieces of language that reward puzzle-solvers’ awareness of syllables. So enjoy these first:  

So what’s fundamental to ask and answer about the American-English system of Syllables—especially if your goal is to understand intended meaning and to speak clearly or expressively?

  • How Many Syllables Are There in a Word or Phrase? Whether language learners/improvers are children, (young) adults, or senior citizens, phonological awareness is a necessary ingredient of clear speech and meaningful oral reading. Basic to this aural skill is recognition of syllables, defined as “units of pronunciation with one vowel sound each, forming words or parts of words.”

There are several fun ways to count syllables in words and phrases. You can listen for the number of vowel sounds—or notice the number of vowel spellings in printed text. With your hand under your chin, you can notice how many times it moves when you say something. You can “clap the beats” of an utterance. Or you can “talk like a robot,” counting how many pauses you make when moving your lips to say an item.

At "two levels of pedagogical challenge,” here are explanations of aspects of the concept of syllables. The pages include listening/speaking exercises and “Rules for Syllabification” in English spelling. They’re from Part Two-4: Numbers of Syllables (from Beginners Before Speaking with Pronunciation Principles) + Pronunciation Practice 4.A = Recognize Numbers of Syllables.

What’s the Pattern of Syllable Stress in an Utterance? As soon as listeners or speakers recognize (or can count) syllables, they’ll begin noticing syllable-stress patterns—the arrangement of strongly or weakly stressed—and unstressed (“reduced”)— syllables in words, phrases, and connected discourse.

Why is it helpful to be aware of these when listening or talking? Because in clearly articulated speech, stressed syllables (those with the strongest voice emphasis) are said somewhat longer, higher in pitch, more clearly, and more loudly than unstressed syllables. These differences can be noted and practiced with devices like a kazoo (a simple musical instrument) or a rubber band to stretch while lengthening syllables.  

For more explanation, visual representations of syllable-stress patterns, and lots of effective practice, you can click on excerpts from Part Two-5: Syllable-Stress Patterns (from Beginners Before Speaking with Pronunciation Principles) + Pronunciation Practice 4.B, 4.C, 4.D = Recognize, Contrast, & Use Syllable-Stress Patterns. You and yours will enjoy the colorful content-rich examples, exercises, and activities beyond the text.   

  • What are “Syllable Focal Points” in Phrasing—and Why Should We Notice or Use Them? English speakers that don’t make good use of this feature of fluent, expressive speech may be hard to understand. If someone is truly trying to convey meaning, he/she probably knows (which syllable of) which word should get extra emphasis. And if these speech sounds are pronounced somewhat longer, higher, clearer, and louder than the other stressed syllables, the speaker’s message will automatically become clearer—even if his/her pronunciation of some sounds is imprecise.

Want to give and get directions clearly by optimizing the use of focal points? Review the explanations and take part in the activities of Pronunciation Practice 5.A, 5.B, 5.C, 5 D = Recognize & Stress Focal Points; Contrast Reduced Syllables with Emphasized Ones. As you do, you’ll get a chance to use your new skills to learn about U.S. geography and travel while correctly pronouncing place names. 

  • How Is the “Regular Rhythm of Speech” Based on Syllable Stress? In standard American English, it’s basically the number of emphasized syllables in each grouping of sounds and words that determines the stress-timed rhythm of everyday speech. To get this principle and practice it, click on The Regular Rhythm of American English, offered in Part Three of Accent Activities: Pronunciation Supplement to Speaking. You’ll enjoy getting into the rhythm by hearing and verbalizing the regular cadence of well-known proverbs, nursery rhymes, and a children’s song. And as a bonus, there’s a mini-course in the existence and pronunciation of “Reduced Forms” in context. 

Three effective steps in (self-) instruction in Syllables are [1] to recognize and count their “beats,” [2] to sort and analyze vocabulary items according to their syllable-stress patterns, and [3] to put syllables together to make multi-syllabic words and phrases. Idea Q: Syllables, of Phonics & Spelling: Everything to Know Now tells why these tasks work in improving comprehension and production of fluent speech. It also offers picture-card based activities that illustrate these principles—as well as Syllabic Word-Reference Lists.

And here are extensive Syllable-Spelling Reference Lists from Beginning Phonics & Spelling Puzzles, followed by suggestions of how to make efficient and effective use of them in teaching/learning about the letter/sound combinations that prevail in American-English.

Then how about a review of pedagogy followed by entertaining and motivating practice in manipulating American-English sound and letter combinations? Go to Syllable Rimes, Open vs. Closed Rimes, & Syllable Patterns of Intermediate Phonics & Spelling Puzzles. Motivated to solve innovative and challenging puzzlers (Word Find, Criss-Cross, Linked Words, Letter Choices, Word Maze, Switched Letters, So What’s Different, Meaning Categories, Letter Connect, Letter Jumble, Letter Blocks, Rebus Crossword), you’ll learn even more about syllables and how they work in real speech.   

And of course, for more indirect stimuli to support your language-improvement efforts in regard to syllables, you can download a “Plethora of Puzzles” from the web Type in phrases like “Picture Rebus Puzzles,” “Plexors,” “Wacky Wordies,” etc.  

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About Work/Life English
For over 35 years, Work/Life English has been dedicated to improving the lives of native and non-native English language learners. We offer a comprehensive range of fun, effective English language improvement lessons, strategies, and activities to help adult education ESL educators successfully engage their English language students and improve their English competencies, leading to a host of positive effects in students’ professional and personal lives. Better English, Better Life. For more information, visit www.worklifeenglish.com.
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