Making the Syllable Types Multisensory – Orton Gillingham

As an Orton Gillingham practitioner, I know that teaching the 6 syllable types can be daunting to both the teacher and the students! The syllable types represent the overarching structure of our entire language! Teaching the 6 syllable types requires knowledge and expertise on the part of the teacher, and a willingness and an interest to learn on the part of the student. For some students, learning the syllable types presents a roadblock to progress in OG instruction.

In addition to my other certifications, I am, first and foremost, a Montessori certified teacher, and I am deeply invested in the art and the science of multisensory teaching. When I took my Orton Gillingham training and completed my practicum two decades after my Montessori training course, I couldn't help but to compare the multisensory techniques and materials of OG to those found in the Montessori Method. Frankly, I was a little disappointed in the lack of available multisensory OG materials. Dr. Montessori represented every single concept and step of learning in concrete, three dimensional representation. Her motto was: "Never give more to the ear than to the hand".

So after I completed my OG practicum, I went straight to work, finding ways to bring to life the concepts and the processes of Anna Gillingham's work, so as to offer children a more concrete representation of the uniqueness of our language. Today I will share with you the way that I demonstrate the 6 syllable types in a concrete presentation, and how my students utilize these materials and procedures, so that they end up fully owning the concept of the syllable types.

The Structure of English:

The world of multisensory structured language education owes a great debt to Noah Webster, who organized and restructured our language in 1806. His contribution of the syllable types and the syllable division rules provide a foundation upon which all of Anna Gillingham's work rests. Noah observed and created patterns in our language, and decisively organized these patterns into a structure which creates predictability, and allows for logic to govern our production of written language. Mr. Webster's 6 syllable types (and their exceptions), and his crafting of the 12 syllable division rules, offer an intangible and an invaluable benefit to our quest as structured literacy teachers.

English is a Language of Patterns:

The English language is, thankfully, wrought with patterns, and these patterns can be used to teach the structure of our language to our students. The basic concept of patterning is taught in preschool, with blocks and other manipulative objects. Thus, patterning instruction during the preschool years lays a very perfect foundation for later reading skills.

Many children subconsciously learn these English language patterns in written language without formal instruction, through generalization and boot-strapping (i.e. if c-a-k-e says 'cake', then m-a-k-e must say 'make'). However, other patterns are not as simplistic to generalize, and exceptions do exist in our language. Thus, the rules must be taught explicitly, sequentially, and systematically.

The Confusing and Sophisticated Nomenclature of Reading Instruction:

The Orton Gillingham Approach utilizes technical and mechanical language to represent the concepts and ideas of our language. These terms are not terribly kid-friendly, and can cause confusion for particular students, sometimes to the extent of slowing down the instructional process. However, by attaching actionable concrete experiences to the nomenclature which represent these concepts, students come to understand, through three-dimensional illustration and hands-on manipulation, what the concepts represent.

Capitalizing on Pattern Instruction to Teach the 6 Syllable Types:

Patterns are easily represented through colors and shapes. Preschool children are able to master the concept of patterning when kinesthetic action is recruited, in addition to visual stimuli. Many of our young students, and most of our disordered students, are still becoming familiar with the alphabetic code well into their instructional or remedial therapy time. Thus, using the alphabet tiles or cards as the sole form of patterning is often not sufficient. By creating a color-coded alphabetic system, however, students begin to see underlying consistencies in word patterns. This idea can be further extrapolated onto the use of three dimensional color coded cubes (which I call the Color Coded Sound Blocks), which represent the letter types (long vowels, short vowels, Bossy R, digraphs, etc.).  Within my OG system (Lil' Reading Scientists TM), the following color coding is employed:

consonants: red; short vowels: blue; long vowels: pink; digraphs: purple; consonant blends: two red blocks; Bossy R: brown; vowel teams: orange; suffixes: green; prefixes: turquoise; chunks such as an, am, ing, ank: black; silent e: yellow.

The Benefits of a Color Coded Alphabetic System:

  1. Utilizing a color coded alphabetic system helps students to learn the names of the letter types (digraphs, blends, chunks, short and long vowels, etc.). "Consonants are red". Students often have difficulty mastering the nomenclature of the letter types.
  2. Students can immediately see letter patterns within words with a color coded system. Example: in the word 'cat', the two consonants are red and the short vowel is blue.
  3. Syllable types are immediately recognizable when using a color-coded alphabetic system as described above. Example: a red-blue-red pattern in a word indicates a closed syllable:  cat.  A red-brown pattern indicates a Bossy R syllable: car.
  4. Syllable division rules are easily visualized and recognized in a color coded alphabetic system: rab/bit.  Students can easily identify the vowels, and divide between them.
  5. The sound of the vowel is easily recognized in a color coded alphabetic system. The short vowels are blue, as in the word 'bag', and the long vowels are pink, as in the word 'bake'.  The silent e is always yellow. This feature is immensely beneficial for students just learning the VCE pattern/syllable type. Students have plenty of practice reading black text in decodable sentences and stories, but the skill still transfers.
  6. When teaching morphology, students can clearly see the suffixes and prefixes in the words. Example:  'pretest' with a turquoise prefix, and 'jumping' with a green suffix.
  7. A color coded alphabetic system helps to break the guessing habit which many student have ingrained into their compensatory reading tool kit.

Going One Step Further: Color Coded Sound Blocks:

Open your mind for one minute to hear this next idea. Utilizing color coded sound blocks, which dovetail exactly with the color coded alphabet, helps students tremendously to become deep thinkers of written language. This exercise deepens their thinking at the syllable, phoneme, and morphological levels simultaneously.

I regularly ask my students to syllabicate, sound out, and spell words with just the color coded sound blocks, after they have mastered the color coding. Students need to think through the word, from the standpoint of syllables, affixes, and individual sounds, in the correct sequence. This exercise is a highly challenging activity which challenges my students to think deeply about our language.

If I ask them to spell a closed syllable word, such as the word 'dog' with the blocks, this is what it looks like:

If I ask them to spell a VCE word such as 'cake', this is what it looks like:

If I ask them to spell a Bossy R word such as 'car', this is what it looks like:

If I ask them to spell a Vowel Team word, such as 'boat', this is what it looks like:

If I ask them to spell an open syllable word, such as 'go', this is what it looks like: If I ask them to spell a CLE word, such as 'maple', this is what it looks like:

The Ability to Visually Contrast Syllable Types:

When utilizing the color coded sound blocks for encoding, students have the immediate ability to visually observe differences in syllable types. For instance, if I ask my students to make the word 'costume' in blocks, this is what it looks like:

The ability to encode words with the color coded sound blocks requires the student to (1) thoroughly know the color coded system which represents the various letter types and letter cluster types, (2) map the phonemes onto the correct colored blocks, (3) order the phonemes, represented by the blocks, into the correct sequence from left to right, (4) conceptually understand that the vowels make multiple sounds, and (5) think through the syllable type patterns. This exercise requires the student to deeply understand and process the structure of the English language, using metacognitive strategies and their accumulated knowledge of the rules which govern our language.

When writing the same words with a pencil and paper, it is easy for a student to write any old letter that comes to mind, in any pattern, without truly thinking through the syllable type patterns and rules. Writing with a pencil lends itself to impulsivity, often just to get something down on paper. In contrast, when working with the color coded sound blocks, students are really thinking about what patterns they will make to complete the requested task. They deliberately ponder over which colored vowel block to choose, in order to make a long vowel sound, and which block represents the vowel team or the Bossy R. The color coded blocks encourage students to use their logic and cumulative knowledge to make decisions for encoding and decoding processes.

Using the Color Coded Sound Blocks to Teach Affixes:

When utilizing the color coded sound blocks with words containing suffixes and prefixes, students are able to immediately see the affixes as a separate entity to the base word. For example, this is what the word "protesting" looks like in blocks:

Using the color coded blocks makes it simple to illustrate the rule of dropping the e to add a vowel suffix - we take away the silent e to add the suffix block 'ing', as illustrated here in the word: skating:

Additionally, the color coded sound blocks help students to visualize two suffixes in a word, as illustrated here in the word 'helpfulness':

Helping Students to Understand Phoneme to Grapheme Correspondence:

Some students have difficulty understanding that digraphs, which are composed of two letters, actually make only one sound. Through utilization of the color coded sound blocks, students can visually see that a digraph is represented by only one block. Each block makes a sound. The digraph block is purple. Here is an illustration of what the word 'dish' looks like in blocks:

In this illustration, one can see that the word 'dish' has only three sounds: /d/ /i/ /sh/. The concept of more letters than sounds is difficult for some students to grasp, but the color coded blocks make the concept easier to demonstrate.

Color Coded Sound Blocks and the 12 Syllable Division Rules:

Anna Gillingham outlined the 12 syllable division rules in her OG manual. Experienced structured literacy teachers know how the 12 syllable division rules relate to the 6 syllable types. These two concepts are intertwined, and they reinforce one another during instruction.

Each syllable type has a pattern, and each pattern has syllable division rules that accompany it. For instance, a closed syllable word, such as 'cat' is a one syllable word, so the first syllable division rule applies: "Don't divide a one syllable word". Compound words are generally comprised of closed and VCE syllable types, and the rule for compound words states: "Divide between the two words". For two syllable words with two closed syllables, such as the word "kitten", the division rule is "Divide between the two middle consonants". For words with a affixes, the rules states: "Divide between the baseword and the suffix", and "Divide after the prefix". Each syllable type can be linked to an applicable syllable division rule.

The more advanced division rules dovetail with the syllable types, as well. For instance, for a two syllable word with an open syllable coming first, the division rule is: "Leave the first syllable open". For a word with only one middle consonant, the division rule is: "Let the middle consonant go with the first syllable", making the first syllable closed, as in the word 'relish'.

The color coded sound blocks can be used to illustrate the syllable division rules. Let's look at the word 'table'.

The first syllable in the word 'table' has a pink name vowel in the open position. Students need to apply syllable division rule #7: "Leave the first syllable open". When illustrated with the color coded sound blocks, students can easily see the open first syllable, and they know that the long vowel (pink) is used either only in an open or a VCE syllable type. This multisensory use of the blocks makes learning the syllable division rules easier for students to contemplate and visualize.

Using the Color Coded Sound Blocks with the LRS Phoneme Sequence Board:

The Lil' Reading Scientists TM Phoneme Sequence Board is a tactile board with vertical sandpaper strips. Students use it to sound out words for encoding and decoding. The student uses his pointer finger to make one swipe, from top to bottom, on the sandpaper strips, from left to right, for each sound heard (for encoding) or for each letter or letter cluster seen (for decoding) in a word.

The Phoneme Sequence Board can be used as a foundation upon which to build words, as well. Students sound out the word, and then build the word with the color coded sound blocks, on top of the individual sandpaper strips. Each sandpaper strip represents one sound.

Shown here is the Phoneme Sequence Board with the color coded sound blocks and the color coded alphabet letters, to spell the word 'bag'. Utilizing the Phoneme Sequence Board for word building with blocks and/or letters helps the new reader remember to work from left to right, and teaches them about one to one phoneme/grapheme correspondence.

In summary, use of a color coded alphabetic system can be tremendously advantageous for students who require more multisensory experiences, in order to understand, process, and own the complex rules of the English language. Utilizing color coded sounds blocks provide a unique and deeply multisensory experience, when paired with the Orton Gillingham Approach. The color coded sound blocks can help student to learn the technical nomenclature that accompanies structured literacy instruction, as well as provide kinesthetic actions which serve to demonstrate these concepts visually to new and disordered readers.


Jenelle Erickson Boyd, M.Ed., CDP, Author of this Blog, is a certified Reading Specialist, a certified Dyslexia Practitioner, and an avid advocate for children with reading issues. She is an educational speaker, teacher trainer, and curriculum Author of the Lil' Reading Scientists TM Orton Gillingham curriculum.

To reach Jenelle, please email her at

To view the Lil' Reading Scientists TM Orton Gillingham curriculum, please visit her website at: