Open and closed syllables are 2 of the most frequent syllable types that occur in English.
In this article you will learn what the differences between these 2 syllable types are, and why it is even important to know about this distinction when we are learning to read.
What is a closed syllable?
A closed syllable has a vowel that is closed in at the end by at least 1 consonant.
1-syllable words: cat, not, hot
2-syllable words with 2 closed syllables: starfish (star – fish), napkin (nap – kin), picnic (pic-nic).
When a vowel is closed in by a consonant, it makes its short sound. When we are teaching our children to read, we can explain to them that the consonant is actually keeping that vowel sound closed and short.
Closed syllables account for almost 50% of the syllables. It is the most common syllable type in the English language.
What is an open syllable?
An open syllable is not closed in at the end by a consonant.
1-syllable words: no, he, me
2-syllable words with 2 open / closed syllables: razor (ra – zor), vacant (va – cant)
When vowels stand on their own in a syllable, they are also considered open syllables in most cases. For instance: the ‘a’ in able (‘a-ble’), ‘a’ in apron (‘a-pron’) or just ‘a’, in the pronoun ‘a’ (‘a’ cat, ‘a’ dog).
When a vowel is not closed in by a consonant, we say that it is open. The vowel makes its long sound, in other words: it says its name.
How to recognise Open / Closed Syllables?
English has 6 syllable types. Syllables can fall under these categories:
- R controlled
- Vowel teams
- Vowel-consonant-e syllable (also known as ‘magic E’ syllable type)
For syllables to fall either on the category CLOSED or OPEN:
- They normally only contain ONLY 1 vowel (otherwise they would fall under the category ‘vowel teams’).
- They do not finish with R (otherwise, they would fall under the category -r controlled syllables). The r takes control of the vowel and changes its pronunciation, as in the words car, for or fur.
- They don’t have the vowel-consonant-e syllable structure (ex: make, take, hope, etc.). The ‘magic E’ makes the preceding vowel say its name
- They don’t have the structure: consonant +le structure (ex: handle, middle). These are pronounced with the /ul/ sound.
Typical Open/Closed word structures (+ examples!)
2 closed syllables
admit (ad mit)
basket (bas ket)
enlist (en list)
contact (con tact)
connect (con nect)
cactus (cac tus)
complex (com plex)
implant (im plant)
1 Open / 1 Closed
agent (a gent)
hotel (ho tel)
basic (ba sic)
icon (i con)
begin (be gin)
item (i tem)
music (mu sic)
Closed / Open
combo (com bo)
hippo (hip po)
jumbo (jum bo)
tempo (tem po)
How to divide the syllables in these type of words?
First of all, locate the vowels and circle them/ underline them/ highlight them… Whatever you prefer!
If you’ve got a word with two consonant sounds between two vowel sounds, divide the word between the consonant sounds.
If there are 3 consonants between the vowels, you’ve got a blend. The sounds that are blended together stay together in one syllable.
If there’s just one consonant sound between the vowels, the first syllable division rule to try is V/CV. That is, dividing up the word BEFORE the consonant.
This is the first division type because it is going to work for most cases. However, there are some tricky words that don’t stick to it. So… If this rule does not work, then we resort to VC/V for dividing up words.
Also, remember that consonant clusters or blends cannot be separated. So, even if we count two consonants here, we don’t divide between the consonants. We keep the consonants always together in a blend or a cluster. So, in this instance, we divide after
Finally, when there are two vowels next to each other that do NOT work as a team, then we divide the word between those two separate vowel sounds.
This is not a common occurrence, but it is worth mentioning, as it explains the way in which we read certain words that, otherwise, doesn’t seem to make much sense.
>>Watch syllable division principles on this video + Watch a real-life example dividing syllables with a 6-year-old <<
Why is it so beneficial to know about the difference between open and closed syllables?
I guess that after learning the reading rules that apply to open and closed syllables you’ve already realized the incredible power that teaching this to your students can have.
When a child encounters an unfamiliar word, knowing about syllable types rules arms him/her with very valuable tools to go about and sound it out correctly. Otherwise, how is s/he supposed to know if vowels say their short or their long sound? This is truly one of the most challenging parts of learning to read.
Besides, learning the difference between open and closed syllables can really help children out with their spelling.
Why is it that we have to double consonants on words such us kitten, mitten or dinner? It is to prevent the vowels from saying their long sounds (vowel names). By doubling the consonants, we get 2 perfectly formed closed syllables with vowels that say its short sound. Ta da!!
What if my student doesn’t get the difference between open and closed syllables?
Experience tells me though that it can tricky for beginner readers to grasp this concept. That is why I am not a big fan of introducing it too early in his/her learning to read journey.
Because, let’s recap and see what children need to be clear about to start with:
- They have to be able to tell the difference between consonants and vowels.
- They need to understand what syllables are.
- They have to understand the concept of consonant clusters or blends, or how some consonants are just inseparable.
- They have to know that sometimes vowels say their short sound (a, e, etc) and sometimes they say its name (a, e, etc).
And, on top of that then, when we teach them open and closed syllables:
- They have to remember that consonants close syllables
- They have to remember what happens with vowel sounds in open and closed syllables
Taking all of this into account, it is not surprising some children (especially the younger ones!) can find open and closed syllables tricky.
My recommendations are to overcome this are:
- Focus on easy word structures first (he, she, me… Then 2 syllable-words with 2 closed syllables: picnic, napkin, laptop).
- Make sure that s/he understands the difference between consonant and vowels. This can be the root cause of the problem!
- Make sure s/he fully understands what syllables are!
- If still nothing of this works, maybe just leave all of this for a little bit later on. Especially if you are dealing with a very young reader, it may just be way too complicated for him/her at this point. For the time being when sounding out this type of words, just get your student to try short vowel sound first. If the word doesn’t make sense with the short vowel sound, get him/her to try with the long vowel next. Remember we said that closed syllables are the most frequent in English. That is why it makes more sense to try with the short sound first. It is also the reason why we teach short vowel sounds first too!
The ‘schwa’ sound in Open and Closed Syllables
Did you know that there there is even an extra level of complexity going on here, which is the schwa sound replacing sometimes the short vowel sound in closed syllables?
Think of pencil, seven or kitten. The ‘i’ in pencil and the ‘e’ in seven and kitten, if you listen really closely, sounds like a schwa sound /ə/.
I know, really confusing!
I am not going to extend lots of the schwa sound here, because this topic is huge and would really deserve an entire article.
However, what I am going to say is that I do not recommend talking about this with your child or student at this point.
Besides, in general, there is really no need, so why confuse children?
Being the schwa sound such a neutral sound, it is really the sound that is naturally going to roll out of their mouths if they are native English speakers when they are reading these words. And they are not going to really going to question: ‘Oh, is this pure ‘a’ sound or ‘e’ sound or is it something different?’
Final thoughts on Open and Closed Syllables
So, behind Open and Closed syllables there’s quite a lot going on as you can see. And concepts that build upon each other. That is why I always say that you need to follow a well-thought plan, you need repetition, practice and consistency.
That is key… Because when you are consistent you can really achieve outstanding results.