A Beginner’s Guide to Spanish Syllables
Today, I want to share with you how helpful understanding Spanish syllables is if you’re homeschooling in Spanish or teaching it in an educational institution.
Read this article to learn the most important things you should know about Spanish syllables. You’ll also be able to download a sample sequence of Spanish syllables to teach.
Let’s get started!
What is a Syllable?
A syllable is a unit of organization for sequences of speech sounds. If you’re not a linguist, you probably don’t know that syllables are historically older than letters. It’s true! The first syllabic writings date back to 3000 BC, several hundred before the first letters.
I’m not going to analyze syllabic structure here. What’s important for you to know is that every syllable has a vowel. Consonants may appear before or after the vowel, separately, or in combination.
Of course, syllables vary from language to language, and Spanish syllables have their own peculiarities.
7 Spanish Syllable Guidelines
Keep the following rules in mind when teaching or learning Spanish syllables.
1. Most syllables end with a vowel.
The most basic ones (the first ones we teach) are “open syllables” that consist of a consonant followed by a vowel:
niña: ni-ña (girl)
casa: ca-sa (house)
mamá: ma-má (mom)
2. A consonant between two vowels forms a syllable with the second vowel.
ama: a-ma (mistress)
oso: o-so (bear)
oro: o-ro (gold)
3. If two consonants meet, they form two separate syllables.
The first consonant is part of a syllable with the preceding vowel, and the second consonant forms a syllable with the succeeding vowel.
escuela: es-cue-la (school)
canto: can-to (sing)
cuando: cuan-do (when)
4. In Spanish, there are strong and weak vowels.
The strong vowels are a, e, and o and the weak vowels are i and u. Spanish syllables can only have one strong vowel.
A strong vowel next to one or more weak vowels may form one syllable together:
reina: rei-na (queen)
Two adjacent weak vowels form a diphthong:
ciudad: ciu-dad (city)
Two adjacent strong vowels from two separate syllables:
toalla: to-a-lla (towel)
koala: ko-a-la (koala bear)
5. Some consonants are not separated
These include br, ch, bl, cl, cr, dr, gr, gl, fl, fr, ll, pl, pr, qu, rr, and tr. They are called sílabas trabadas (locked syllables) in Spanish.
pueblo: pue-blo (town)
siempre: siem-pre (always)
amarillo: a-ma-ri-llo (yellow)
aplicar: a-pli-car (to apply)
hecho: he-cho (fact)
Take note that combinations rl, sr, tl, nr, and sl are separated into distinct syllables:
isla: is-la (island)
atlas: at-las (atlas)
honrar: hon-rar (to honor)
6. If three consonants appear together…
The first one usually stays with the preceding vowel and the next two form a syllable with the next vowel.
inglés: in-glés (English)
ombligo: om-bli-go (belly button)
7. Prefixes are syllables of their own.
submarino: sub-ma-ri-no (submarine)
desorganizado: des-or-ga-ni-za-do (unorganized)
Now, let’s see how we can use syllables for teaching, either for early reading programs or for correct pronunciation for older learners.
Syllabic Reading Method
Many students have trouble joining letters to sound out words. They may know all the letters and sounds in a word and still be unable to pronounce it. That’s why syllabic teaching is such a good solution.
Teaching through the syllabic method in Spanish is slightly different from teaching it in English. There are about 400,000 syllables in Spanish, so you’re not going to teach them one by one.
All you need is a plan, defined scope, and sequence, and lots of practice. Your student’s brain will figure out the rest. Remember to introduce real words as early as possible, in the context of full sentences.
Steps to Follow
First, you teach recognition and correct pronunciation of vocals. Then, you can either teach consonants or omit this step and introduce them in simple Spanish syllables.
Each consonant should be combined with the five vowels in straightforward Spanish syllables. Personally, I prefer to teach multiple syllables with a single vowel to the ma, me, mi, mo, mu pattern. If I teach ma, pa, sa, and la in one week it gives me more opportunities to form words.
After the students know the Spanish syllables with the letter a, you can move on to syllables with the letter e and so on. With all the open Spanish syllables covered you can motivate your students with real words and sentences.
Mamá va a casa. (Ma-má va a ca-sa.)
Mom goes home.
Papá me da la pala. (Pa-pá me da la pa-la.)
Dad gives me the shovel.
Later, you combine the same consonants in inverse syllables: am, em, im, om, um, etc. It might seem unnecessary but for little learners ma and am have little in common.
That’s why teaching simply the alphabet or letter sounds so often is not enough. With inverse Spanish syllables, you can form new words and new sentences.
Vivo en España. (Vi-vo en Es-pa-ña.)
I live in Spain.
Él es de Jaén. (Él es de Ja-én.)
He is from Jaén.
The next step is to teach blends—pri, pla, and ple, for example. Then you can move on to diphthongs, triphthongs, and four-letter complex Spanish syllables.
Advantages of the Syllabic Method
- This method omits the spelling from the alphabetic method and the separate pronunciation of the letter sounds.
- The syllables are logical sound unions that are easily grasped by the senses.
- The method works well with Spanish syllables, as it is a phonetic language, meaning the sound combination is always pronounced the same way.
Disadvantages of the Syllabic Method
- Some educators find it abstract and artificial. This can be avoided by introducing real words and sentences as early as possible.
- The learning is slow, as there are so many syllables to cover.
- Because it is mechanical, it’s easy to forget the comprehension aspect.
I’m personally a big fan of teaching reading through Spanish syllables. I believe it’s a perfect method for this language and the fastest one. My daughters both enjoyed it and learned quickly. Now, the older one at the age of seven is already an avid independent reader.
Download a FREE sample scope for kids between ages 4-6 to start with! This sequence assumes your child already knows the vowels; if not, dedicate two or three weeks to teaching a, e, i, o, and u first.
You can also use it with older kids who know how to read in other languages and simply accelerate the pace. Combine two weeks in one, and cover the sequence in 12 or 13 weeks.
Teaching Spanish Pronunciation with Spanish Syllables
When older students try to speak a foreign language, pronunciation is a common challenge. The sounds in Spanish don’t always correspond with English sounds.
When we grow older, the brain’s plasticity diminishes and our sound organs get used to only certain sounds. Linguists talk about phonological deafness. It means that the way we hear sounds depends on the perception of the sound acquired in childhood in the mother tongue, and we simply don’t hear a sound that does not exist in our language.
That’s important to remember when teaching pronunciation.
Teaching correct Spanish pronunciation through Spanish syllables makes the process easier. You’re not teaching separate sounds or letters, but rather logical sound combinations.
The order is the same as in the syllabic reading method. Teach vowels first, then continue with open syllables, blends, diphthongs, triphthongs, and four-letter complex Spanish syllables.
Same as with little kids, rely on real words and sentences to teach stress, rhythm, and intonation. Of course, you are not teaching reading if your students are older, so you can combine the Spanish syllables in bigger blocks and progress faster.
Teaching and learning reading and pronunciation is a long process in any language. Knowing Spanish syllables and how they work can make your life easier.
Do you know that you can sign up for a free trial class for your child with one of our friendly, native Spanish-speaking teachers from Guatemala? Just let us know that you want to focus on Spanish syllables!
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