What is an Open Syllable and Why are they Important for Emergent Readers?

What is an Open Syllable and Why are they Important for Emergent Readers?

My previous post considered the importance of teaching closed syllables to emergent readers. In this one, I will introduce the open syllable and, in particular, will focus on the importance of teaching single syllable, open syllable words as early in the reading instruction process as possible. Before we can answer the question “What is an open syllable?”, let’s quickly review what a long vowel is.

What are the Long Sounds of the Vowels?

In a long vowel (sometimes also referred to as a strong vowel) the vowels usually make the following sounds:

  • a (ace)
  • e (Egypt)
  • i (ice)
  • o (ocean)
  • u (unicorn)
  • y (sounds like ‘i’ or ‘e’ as in cry or story).

It is vitally important to pre-teach these sounds, along with consolidating existing knowledge of short vowel sounds before introducing a new level of decodable readers. When these different vowel sounds are known and automaticity gained, much more capacity is freed up in working memory for sound blending and reading comprehension.

What is an open syllable: single syllable, open syllable words

We discovered in my last post that in a closed syllable the vowel is ‘closed in’ by one or more consonant sounds causing it to make its short sound. In an open syllable there are no consonants after a single vowel, resulting in it making a long vowel sound.

What is an open syllable? An open syllable contains a long vowel with no consonant to close it it. This concept should be introduce early in reading instruction.
“What is an open syllable?” This figure illustrates the definition of an open syllable. Click to enlarge. Permission to reuse with acknowledgement of FocusOnTAP.com


Here are some examples of single syllable, open syllables:

  • so
  • me
  • I
  • my

It is important to notice that where y is the final letter of a word it will always be a vowel. In the list above, it can be heard making its long ‘i’ sound because this is the sound y makes in a single syllable, open syllable.

What is an open syllable: open syllables in multisyllabic words

Open syllables are found in multisyllabic words as well and future blogs will go into more detail about these as I guide readers through the different stages of the TAP Phonics levels. However, it is important to demonstrate briefly their role in some longer words so that blog readers can see them in action. Therefore, here are a few multisyllabic words with open syllables:

  • a-corn (open syllable/ r-controlled syllable)
  • may-be (vowel team syllable/ open syllable)
  • cy-clone (open syllable/ e-controlled syllable).

Notice that the ‘y’ in the word cyclone is once again making its long ‘i’ sound because it is at the end of an open syllable.

As you can see, open syllables are very common in multisyllabic words. They can also be misunderstood or ignored, resulting in spelling difficulties, reading inaccuracies and word mispronunciation. However, I will now turn my attention back to the single syllable, open syllable.

Why are Long Vowel Sounds in Open Syllables Introduced so Early?

According to The Oxford English Corpus: Facts about the language, the following single syllable, open syllable words rank in the top hundred most commonly used words in the English Corpus.

  • be
  • I
  • he
  • by
  • we
  • she
  • my
  • so
  • go
  • me
  • no

These words number 11 and so amount to more than 10% of the 100 most common words. We see that part of the answer to “what is an open syllable” is “a type of syllable common in our most frequent words”. Therefore, it is easy to argue that they must be introduced nice and early and immediately after closed syllable, single syllable words have been mastered.

Why Should Emergent Readers be Taught the Difference Between and Open and Closed Syllables?

I hope that by now most readers will have come to my conclusion ahead of me. It’s all to do with unlocking phonic information contained within words. Words are just like a maths equation or a computer code. If you change the location of a character, you change its properties. When we talk about phonics, these properties are sounds and graphemes. When students are taught that a vowel will make its short sound in a closed syllable and its long sound in an open syllable, this makes so much sense.

Sadly, there are a large group of non-proficient readers and/ or spellers of all ages who have not been taught these straightforward rules. They do not know why an ‘o’ will make its short sound in the word ‘sob’ but its long sound in the word ‘so’, which are only one grapheme apart.

Instead, these learners might have memorised lots of word shapes and have been given a splattering of phonic rules. Armed with this unstructured tuition, many learners create their own mythology about reading. Much of this mythology is focused on the whether a word ‘looks right’ and the rest falters on the myth that English vowel sounds don’t make sense and are too irregular to decode. The very sad ultimate result of not being taught syllable types right from the start of reading is that, quite early on, readers see the code as not making sense and give up. Even worse than this, many of these emergent readers blame their misunderstanding on themselves and begin the very long and painful road of self-doubt, insecurity and, very often, anxiety and other mental health issues.

How Can TAP Phonics Help?

Early, explicit teaching of this concept to beginner readers is a core concept of the philosophy behind our decodable hi-lo readers. Level 1 of the Teen & Adult Phonics Library novels, uses only closed syllable words so that emergent readers can learn and consolidate the blending and reading of short vowel sounds.

In answering the question “What is an open syllable?”, we saw that many of the most common words in English are open syllable words.  Once these sounds are automatic, level 2 in the TAP progression introduces these single syllable, open syllable words like, ‘go’ and ‘my’ in addition to closed, single syllable words with increasingly more challenging consonant clusters. Teacher and tutor information at the beginning of each book indicates the introduction of each progressive syllable type, which allows the direct pre-teaching of those particular phonic rules. When reading TAP Phonic books, an emergent reader should not lose confidence because the vowel sounds make perfect sense and require no creative ‘guessing’ from the reader.