I've created an app that helps children learn how to read using syllables. An image is shown on the screen, and the user has to choose the correct syllables (mixed with other random syllables) to compose the word.

However, in English, "conventions for dividing a word at the end of a line of text and the conventions for dividing a word into phonetic syllables are not the same". (https://www.merriam-webster.com/grammar/word-division-dots-and-syllable-pronunciation-hyphens)

As an example, according to www.merriam-webster.com, the word ROBIN has to be divided as follows:

rob-in ("written" division)

ˈrä-bən ("spoken" division)

Now, my question is: in such a game, for words in which written and spoken divisions don't match, should the app show the user the "written" or the "spoken" syllables? (for example RO and BIN, or ROB and IN)?

Please consider that when the user clicks on a syllable, it gets pronounced.

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    Are you aiming for American or British English? Aug 4, 2023 at 8:06
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    American English. The word ROBIN Is just an example, there are many words in which written and spoken division Is different. I wonder how teachers deal with this. Aug 4, 2023 at 20:37
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    Unless you share some criteria which you wish to satisfy that can be measurably realized by selected one or the other here, this question is completely opinion-based - and therefore off-topic. Please see How to Ask, only questions that accept fact-based answers are on topic.
    – BadZen
    Aug 4, 2023 at 22:57
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    @BadZen Thanks for the suggestion of posting to languagelearning.stackexchange.com. I'd like to point out that "Questions about language learning techniques and their effectiveness" ARE NOT "specifically excluded" in this forum according to the link you provided. They are in the section "If you have questions about the following topics, you MAY want visit other Stack Exchange sites to see if they WOULD BE a better place to ask your question". On the contrary, the "specifically excluded" questions are in the section "Please don’t ask any questions about the following topics". Aug 5, 2023 at 14:16
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    I’m voting to close this question because it asks about game design. Games that help people to learn English would be considered resources and thus possibly on-topic at Meta ELL. I'm not sure whether questions about creating such resources also belong there, but they certainly don't belong here. Aug 7, 2023 at 19:41

2 Answers 2


Syllables in English are complex and debated. There are academic discussions about "onset-nucleus-coda"

With a two syllable word like "robin", the "b" could be the coda of the first syllable, or the onset of the second. A general rule is that you should put as many syllables as possible into the onset. So this gives "ro:bin"

How about "emblem". The consonant cluster mbl in the middle doesn't occur as an onset, but "bl" does (eg in "blink") so in this case we must split the cluster after "m" to get "em:blem".

But to do this requires you to know which consonant blends can be in the onset of a syllable and which can't. And you then need to deal with the inevitable exceptions.

At the end of the day, both "ro-bin" and "rob-in" would sound pretty much the same, unless spoken very slowly.

Consider applying this logic to "ugly" The syllable, according the rules are "u:gly" But even spoken slowly for emphasis "OMG she was UG—LY" this alternate seems both natural and understandable. Consider "pineapple", in pronunciation, the "n" is part of the second (pai:na:ple) syllable, but the "e" is part of the first. How should you split a word like this?

So perhaps it doesn't matter much. I wouldn't want an app that told me that "ug:ly" was wrong. Perhaps your app should allow both "ro:bin" and "rob:in" or you are just nitpicking some detail that doesn't really matter.

Or you should get an actual textbook on teaching analytic phonetics. The normal approach is to break down into "sounds" not "syllables" and so pronounce "r-o-b-i-n" or "e-m-bl-e-m" (the bl is taught as a blend)

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    Thanks for your really detailed answer. As a clarification, my app isn't targeted to children who are able to read and are asked to choose the division in syllables; it's targeted to children who are learning to read or can't read at all. For example, if the picture of a ROBIN is shown, they may have to choose the 2 right syllables between: BAS, ROB, KET, IN. Aug 4, 2023 at 20:16
  • I've started to think that even the notion of syllables in English is debated, sometimes syllables are about the rules on how to broke a word at the end of a line, and sometimes syllables only refer to pronunciation, for example in the following article: merriam-webster.com/grammar/… Aug 4, 2023 at 20:25
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    Hyphenation is a totally separate issue and not something that children need to study (for example it isn't taught at school). As with most things to do with English writing, you won't be able to get a simple algorithmic approach, and the written form may not match the pronunciation in any straightforward way. This means that you'll need to break the words by hand, and the "onset" theory above can help you to do this. If in doubt, consonants belong in the onset, not the coda. This rule will work well enough Hence "Ro:bin", "u:gly" and "em:blem". And don't include words that don't fit
    – James K
    Aug 4, 2023 at 22:50
  • So, for example, I will exclude PINEAPPLE because to match its pronunciation: ˈpī-ˌna-pəl I would have to do something like this: "PI", "NEA", "PPLE" and this seems really confusing, right? Aug 5, 2023 at 7:16
  • Or split it as "sounds" P-INE-A-PP-LE. Like I said, you should look at how phonics is taught. teachphonics.co.uk That page actually has an example with robin, and shows that it isn't broken at syllables, but at the level of letters (or digraphs/trigraphs of letters).
    – James K
    Aug 5, 2023 at 7:23

"Written" divisions are definitely better. Why? Because they're based on the phonetic rules the children are supposed to be learning.

"Ro" by itself would be pronounced with a long O. That's not the sound in the word robin, and that's why it's written as rob-in, following the rule that a syllable ending in a consonant uses a short vowel sound. If you want to teach children to sound out words, teach them the syllable boundaries that will help them do that.

  • Thank you for your answer. Please consider the word PINEAPPLE. The "written" syllable division is PINE-AP-PLE. What sound should the user hear when he/she clicks on "PLE"? Perhaps it's better if the single syllables don't produce any sound when clicked? Or should I use only words in which "spoken" and "written" division match, like BAS-KET? Aug 4, 2023 at 21:17
  • @RaffaeleTasso What's so confusing about -ple/ble/gle/dle/etc. words? You don't have to teach them about syllabic consonants, just demonstrate the sound and tell them it occurs when a word ends in consonant+le. Aug 4, 2023 at 21:48
  • Excluding potentially confusing words is a choice you could make, depending on the age of the students, but remember they'll run into those words no matter what and may have a harder time if they're not equipped to problem-solve. Aug 4, 2023 at 21:50
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    To match the written form of PINEAPPLE with its pronunciation (ˈpī-ˌna-pəl) I would have to divide it like this: "PI", "NEA", "PPLE". English is not my native language, but this seems weird and confusing, isn't it? Aug 5, 2023 at 7:21
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    @RaffaeleTasso No, because "pine" is a syllable (it has a long i because it ends in silent e, and because it's a word within a compound) and the other boundary goes between the double letter. Pine-ap-ple. I strongly recommend enlisting help from someone who normally teaches first-grade phonics or at least a native speaker who did well in it, because mistakes like this will undermine your app severely. Aug 6, 2023 at 18:47

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