Dividing Syllables According to Noah Webster

Did you know that Noah Webster had a significant influence on the English language as it transitioned from old English in England to new English in the United States? Noah Webster took it upon himself to regulate the English language during his 1806 revision of his Webster's Dictionary. He changed some spellings in our words, and worked to bring consistency to the language, during the period of transition from old to new English.

In his effort to regulate our language, Noah Webster classified words in English into 6 basic syllable types, and then created a method by which words could be consistently divided. His goal was to assist English speakers in the task of pronunciation and spelling, when utilizing his dictionary. Noah devised a written coding system for the purpose of syllable division and vowel sounds, to make his dictionary more easily used by American citizens.

The Syllable Division Rules created by Mr. Webster in 1806 were absorbed into American culture, and began to be utilized in linguistic instruction. These rules are still valid and applicable today, and form the basis for the foundation of structured literacy instruction, also known as The Orton Gillingham Approach.

Below is a list of the 12 Syllable Division Rules, as listed in The Orton Gillingham Manual, written by Anna Gillingham and Bessie Stillman, published by Educators Publishing Service. This list is based on the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition. Through utilization of the Syllable Division Rules, in combination with knowledge of the 6 Syllable Types of the English language, students can learn how to figure out the vowel sound in any particular word! This is due to the fact that each SYLLABLE TYPE has consistent vowel rules.

Here are the 12 Syllable Division Rules:

  1. A one syllable word is never divided: boat, good, small, knelt
  2. A compound word is divided between the words that make the compound word: rain/coat, sun/set, air/plane, base/ball
  3. When two or more consonants come between two vowels in a word, the word is usually divided between the first two consonants: hun/gry, bet/ter, suf/fer, pic/ture
  4. When a word has a suffix, it is divided between the root and the suffix: melt/ed, soft/ness, sew/ing, home/less
  5. When a word has a prefix, it is divided between the prefix and the root: ex/cept, dis/turb, mis/lead, un/sold
  6. When a single consonant comes between two vowels in a word, the word is usually divided after the consonant if the first vowel is short: clev/er, lem/on, rob/in, trav/el
  7. When a single consonant comes between two vowels in a word, the word is usually divided before the consonant if the vowel is long: mu/sic, po/lite, pa/per, lo/cate.
  8. When a vowel is sounded alone in a word, it forms a syllable by itself: dis/o/bey, a/live, mon/u/ment, u/ni/form
  9. When two vowels come together in a word and are sounded separately, divide the word between the two vowels: ra/di/o, di/et, cru/el, i/de/a
  10. When a word ends in le preceded by a consonant, the word is divided before that consonant: tur/tle, ca/ble, this/tle, bi/cy/cle
  11. When a word or syllable ends in al or el, usually these letters form the last syllable: cam/el, jew/el
  12. When ed comes at the end of a word, it adds a syllable only when preceded by a d or a t.

By knowing the syllable division rules AND the 6 Syllable Types of the English language, students can decode approximately 75% of English words. Without this knowledge, students are guessing or memorizing. is not possible for humans to memorize ALL of the words in the English language, so at some point.....students who use memorization as their only reading technique run into difficulty, because they are unable to decode new words.

As a Reading Specialist, I see streams of students in my office who are in this very situation. They never mastered the skill of decoding, and have relied on visual memory to develop their reading skills since kindergarten. Many of them do not even know the correct sounds for the alphabet letters, and are lost when it comes to letter-combination sounds, such as 'ea' or 'oy'. Yet, schools across our nation continue to teach reading as a visual-memory skill, through heavy instruction on sight words. If 75% of English words can be decoded, why are we teaching sight reading?

English is an alphabetic language which relies on the correspondence of alphabet symbols to alphabet sounds. Until reading is taught through the alphabetic code with a focus on decoding skills, our students will continue to struggle, and our scores will remain flat.

What needs to happen, in order to improve our reading scores in America?

  1. Stop teaching reading through sight word instruction.
  2. Start focusing on teaching the alphabetic code (alphabet sounds; letter -combination sounds).
  3. Start training teachers on the 6 Syllable Types in the English language.
  4. Start training teachers on the 12 Syllable Division Rules.
  5. Adopt reading curriculum which teaches the syllable types and the syllable division rules.
  6. Support teachers in the transition from sight word reading to decoding skills.

Do you know the rules of the English Language?

Jenelle Erickson Boyd, M.Ed., CDP, Author of this Blog, is a Certified Reading Specialist, a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner, the creator of The Lil' Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions TM Structured Literacy Curriculum, an avid advocate for students with reading issues, a speaker at educational conferences, and a literacy school consultant. To reach her, please email at

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