Syllable skills instruction helps struggling middle-school readers

Magnifying glass over the stack of booksHow far back to the basics do you need to go to help struggling middle schoolers become better readers? Maybe as far back as teaching them syllable skills, says a recent study in Literacy Research and Instruction.

Because middle schoolers frequently encounter unfamiliar words in their textbook reading, some researchers have proposed that helping them learn to divide words into syllables just as dictionaries do would assist them in learning to read and spell. This study of 6th, 7th and 8th grade students found that students who received a 6-month program of syllable skills instruction improved at a greater pace and scored higher in word identification, word attack and reading comprehension than students in the control group, the study says.

Students were also tested in fluency. The intervention group, which had lower mean scores at the start of the study than controls, did not outperform controls on the fluency measure, although it improved from its baseline. Researchers report that, in general, word pronunciation improved as a result of the program and so did comprehension.

“Teaching syllable skills provides students with the tools to divide words into chunks that are consistent with chunking strategies used in dictionaries,” write the authors. “Research suggests that successful readers rely on letter-sound correspondences and chunking strategies to identify unknown words, while struggling readers use contextual clues and pictures to identify unknown words.”

The 83 middle school students in the study had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other common disabilities but the results are relevant for any struggling middle school readers, according to a study in Literacy Research and Instruction. The students were in remedial classes in 3 schools in North Carolina. All had failed the North Carolina End-of-Grade examination in reading for the previous school year and had an identified disability. Four of the 5 teachers who participated taught both the treatment and the control groups.

All teachers received professional development in how to use the Syllable Skills Instruction Curriculum (SSIC), a program developed by the lead author of the study, Jennifer Diliberto of Greensboro College. The syllables curriculum includes 60 mini-lessons addressing specific syllable skills. Each mini-lesson takes about 15 minutes to complete.

Both control and treatment groups received the same amount of instructional time and the same core curriculum; the only difference was the use of the syllable curriculum for the intervention group. The core curriculum in use in the remedial classes was the Corrective Reading Decoding Program (CRP) for all schools and Success Maker for 2 of the 3 schools.

During the mini-lessons, the teacher explicitly taught the vocabulary and concepts related to syllabication:

  • Vowel, consonant and syllable
  • The 6 syllable patterns
  • Syllabication steps and rules
  • Accenting patterns

Examples of syllabication steps include determining if the word contains a prefix or suffix and not dividing consonant blends (bl, gl, scr, etc.). Examples of syllable patterns include closed syllables that end with a consonant preceded by a short vowel and open syllable that ends with a vowel with a long vowel sound.  After a few sessions on basic vocabulary and concepts, teachers began introducing syllable patterns. Only one syllable pattern was introduced every 5 lessons until all 6 patterns were taught. Separating the prefix and suffix from a multisyllabic word are the first two steps used in the SSIC, the authors say.

The next 10 lessons focused on practicing use of syllabication steps and rules. Then students moved on to learning accenting for another 10 lessons. Students practiced word reading and written spelling as part of SSIC. They read nonsense words because it forced them to focus on spelling generalizations rather than memorization to read words. During written spelling exercises, the teacher read 5 low-frequency words or nonsense words and students spelled them in their workbooks.

“Mean scores of students in the treatment groups consistently started lower, but exceeded that of the control group in the areas of word identification, word attack, and reading comprehension,” the authors write. “The present investigation found that students in the treatment condition had increased rate of change from pre-test to post-test on both word identification and word attack tests than the control condition.

“Effects of Teaching Syllable Skills Instruction on Reading Achievement in Struggling Middle School Readers,” by Jennifer Diliberto, et al., January 2009 ,Literacy Research and Instruction, Volume 48, 2009, pp. 14-27.


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