Why teach syllable accents?
I don't hear syllable accents, do you? Have you ever wondered how many of your students are unable to discern the stressed syllable from the unstressed syllable? Teaching syllable accents seems to be a prevalent activity in classrooms and many OG practitioners’ lessons. Why is this such an important skill, or is it? Will a student be able to spell and read without knowing which syllable has the primary or secondary accent?
Many years ago, while taking a course on prefixes, the teacher announced we would be learning how to teach syllable accents. I was immediately transported back to elementary school, and the nuns; panic set it. I knew as an adult I could not tell you which was the accented syllable in any word. How would I ever teach this to a student? I sunk low in my chair. She proceeded to say all students can learn or be taught to hear a stressed syllable. Back then, I doubted the truth to this statement, as I was walking proof it wasn't a learned skill. I never questioned her, but it did lead me down the road of further research.
After my uncomfortable class, I looked at my teaching a bit differently. I started to listen to all the times I heard my OG colleagues talk about stress. A few of them leaned heavily on it, and others didn't. I noticed my students' classwork often had assignments where they had to label stressed syllables. For the life of me, I couldn't determine what the purpose of it was. Did it strengthen spelling skills? I was unable to find anything in writing that told me why we had to teach accents. What I did read over and over again was, words do have accents and let's find them.
So I wondered if it is just me, or do other dyslexic people not hear these accents? As I worked with my students, I watched for signs. I certainly couldn't ask them, ¨Do you hear accents?¨ Most students I worked with appeared to struggle with telling me at a phonological level which syllable is spoken with more impact than the other. I can tell you I often hear the syllable with the schwa as the stronger louder syllable, as in CӘN nect tion. So we did a lot of "calling the word to dinner." I would tell them to pretend they were calling someone home. PAM e la, vol CA no, TU na, and so on. It was a fun exercise, but did it impact spelling or reading?
What does the research say about all of this? I was thrilled to find out I was not an anomaly. Although the research is limited, it has been confirmed that children and adults with dyslexia do have a hard time identifying syllable stress. The connection between stress and Phonological Awareness has been established. So does this mean with enough Phonological Awareness work we may be able to hear the timing and stress of the word? I will be looking into this more and would love to know what others think. I have linked articles below for you to read further.
“Dyslexia is not only a problem related to reading; children with this difficulty also display impaired prosodic processing, in other words, they struggle to detect stressed syllables.”
April 28, 2015 Plataforma SINC
My follow up question to this discovery is: is there an advantage to understanding which syllable is accented and which is not? Does this make spelling easier? I have successfully taught hundreds of students to read and spell without the use of syllable accent instruction. I found introducing schwa early on will indirectly teach accents. For example, schwa is usually not in an accented syllable. Fun fact, right? But what value does it bring to spelling? If my student knows that com and the other assimilated prefixes in that family will be pronounced with either the short o or the schwa, does it matter where the accent is?
There have been a few other times when teaching syllable accent knowledge has appeared and stopped me dead in my tracks. The first was my exposure to Megawords. I love these books for their great word lists. However, I realized that Megawords introduces stressed syllables early, actually around pg 56 in Book One, and continues through all the books. I have to admit, I skip all the worksheets that spend endless time identifying the accent patterns. In addition to Megawords, both How to Teach Spelling and Solving Language Difficulties are accent heavy, although the information they contain is invaluable. So I look for the patterns in the information. I look at the structure of the language.
As a dyslexic person, I too work harder than the typical person in my field, just as the students do. I find ways to work around things like accents. When it was time to teach my student the two-syllable doubling rule, I panicked. How can I explain that if I can not hear the accent? I decided there must be another way, and there was. After sorting words into two groups: words with prefixes and words without prefixes, it was glaringly obvious that we double the final consonant if the word contains a prefix. For me, this was groundbreaking. I rushed into my boss's office and threw down my lists. She, like me, was amazed when we could not find this information in any of the leading teaching manuals; the rule was always based on accent. So I added it to my Endings Rules Made Easy book.
I do know there are times when noticing the word is pronounced differently is important. Notice how the syllable stress changes when adding the suffix.
The suffix -ity follows a different pattern; the vowel before -ity is usually short.
These types of word lists are fabulous for students to read; Angling for Words has some wonderful lists. Since my students are not English Language Learners, they are familiar with the cadence of words even without understanding which syllable is accented. When a word is misread with the wrong accent, it is easily corrected by asking them to add a schwa where needed.
As I mentioned, for the most part, I have eliminated the teaching of accents. I focus on intense schwa instruction, along with other background knowledge, to take me through these bumps in the road. If you are curious about how to teach that, check out my How to Teach Schwa video!
So what do you think your student thinks when you ask them to mark the accented syllables? Do they hear that accent? More importantly, do they need to? I am extremely curious about what everyone has to say about this!
Another interesting piece in all of this is the correlation between music, syllable stresses, and dyslexia. I encourage you to dive a bit deeper. I found it fascinating.
How to teach Spelling by Laura Toby Rudginsky
Solving Language Difficulties by Amy Steere, Caroline Z. Peck, Linda Kahn
Angling for Words by Carolyn C. Bowen
Endings Rules Made Easy by Pam Mehlin and Karen Sonday