More on syllables

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Not surprisingly, my post on /men tuh list/ yesterday was not well received. I tossed it out, stirred the pot, and it bubbled up. Many readers, some angry, have written me to tell me how utterly wrong my syllabification was. I fully agree.  But that wasn’t what I wanted to communicate. I don’t really care how Mentalist syllabifies the name of that TV program. My point, obviously made too obscurely, or too subtly, or too ineptly, had nothing to do with the phonological property of a word. It had to do with children learning how to read. Language Log readers set me straight, but also they were unanimous in saying that the phonologically correct division of mentalist produces two words totally unrelated to the meaning of that word, men and list. I could be very wrong (not unusual for me), but when children find these two unrelated words in mentalist as they try to split the word into phonologically accurate syllables, the result seems counterproductive to the process of learning to read. As heretical as this may sound, I suspect that sometimes a correct analysis of something can actually hinder rather than help children learn new tasks.

It seems to me that if teachers would focus on the productive morphemes in words used in reading materials instead of groping for a word's syllables, their pupils might learn not only to decode the words they read better, but also to produce them effectively in the words they will eventually write, and maybe also understand something about language in the process. Little would be lost because (last I heard) the way the schools commonly teach syllabification is not very helpful for learning to read anyway. In my post I cited the example of my son’s third grade experience and then one Language Log reader reported to me how she was taught to identify syllables. Her teacher told her to place her hand under her chin without touching it, and then to say the word. It was a syllable when her chin hit her hand. Teachers don’t teach much about reading when they tell to their pupils that words like better and bottle contain two syllables: bet + ter and  bot + tle. It’s doubtful that anyone pronounces two /t/ sounds in those words. Maybe this can be a helpful writing trick for splitting words at the ends of lines, but it seems to have little if anything to do with learning to read.

Since morphemes are important tools for learning language, it would seem more useful (at least to this voice crying in the wilderness) for teachers to focus on ways to build some knowledge of how words are constructed. It may not work in every instance, as one Language Log reader pointed out to me, but knowing about suffixes like –al and –ist can have a useful multiplier effect when the kids try to decode new words and even when they learn to write their own sentences.

There is little or no reason for schools to teach syllabification the way they do. Maybe the concept of syllable identification should be dropped entirely in reading instruction. But I’m also not very sure that teaching pupils proper syllable construction contributes anything useful to the process of learning to read.

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