Webster's Way, Or, The Power of the Syllabary

Reading and spelling were taught quite differently for most of history, with a method that focused on first learning what is called "The Syllabary," a table of syllable sounds to be mastered before learning to read. While almost forgotten, this method of Syllabic Phonics is still powerful today. 40L volunteers have taught scores of students to read using this method, using Noah Webster's Blue-backed Speller, The American Spelling Book, with great success. The focus on spelling and syllables [1] has allowed these student to be able to read and spell years above their grade level.

40L's online phonics lessons and spelling lessons are also based on spelling and syllables. They have helped hundreds of remedial students improve their reading and spelling abilities.

As Geraldine L. Rodgers says in her article "Why Noah Webster's Way Was the Right Way,"

The teaching of beginning reading remained unchanged until the eighteenth century A. D. Children first learned the alphabet, and then learned the syllabary, but they continued to spell each syllable as it was practiced, using the current letter names (which still did little to demonstrate their sounds: ell, oh, gee = log). It was only after they learned the syllabary that they read connected texts, usually Latin prayers after about 300 A. D. They then read those texts syllable by syllable until they became proficient readers.

Until the sixteenth century A. D. in English-speaking countries, beginning reading was taught in Latin, and, in much of Europe, beginning reading continued to be taught in Latin until the eighteenth century. Since beginning reader did not yet know Latin, obviously they were reading print purely by its “sound”, and not by its “meaning” (such as Pa - ter nos - ter for Our Father.)

The classical method of teaching reading used syllables, first with Latin, then later in English. Noah Webster used Pascal's invention of letter sound approximations in his syllabary, allowing children to learn phonics and spelling at the same time while keeping to the true sounds of syllables instead of the approximate sounds of letters. (For a full discussion of letter sounds verses syllable sounds with graphs depicting the nature of sound, see 40L's dyslexia page. Rodgers also has a good short explanation of letter sound approximations in the third paragraph of the second page of her article.)

As the preface to his 1851 Reader states, R.G. Parker, like many others committed to the use of Webster's Speller [2] and a syllabary, wanted readers to be able to spell every word before they attempted to read it. In fact, Parker believed,

I have little doubt will be found true, and that is, that it is scarcely possible to devote too much time to the spelling book. Teachers who are impatient of the slow progress of their pupils are too apt to lay it aside too soon. I have frequently seen the melancholy effects of this impatience. Among the many pupils that I have had under my charge, I have noticed that they who have made the most rapid progress in reading were invariably those who had been most faithfully drilled in the spelling book.

The main focus of the teaching when using Webster's Speller was the thorough memorization of the syllabary. As Geraldine L. Rodgers says in her book, "The History of Beginning Reading,"

The syllable pages with the “abs” [ab, eb, ib, ob, ub] in such spelling books after 1826 were seldom used, even at the fourth grade when such spellers were usually introduced. The fact that such syllable pages were not used is shown by their excellent condition in surviving spellers printed after 1826. Yet, in spelling books surviving from before 1826, the syllable pages are often tattered or missing. Before 1826, the syllable pages became tattered or worn out because little beginners were using them very heavily in learning to read by “sound.”

A short version of this history of reading instruction and the demise of the syllabary is available on our website. However, readers desiring a full explanation should read Geraldine E. Rodgers' "The History of Beginning Reading," available in an e-book at Author House for only 8.95.

40L volunteers recommend teaching your student with a copy of Webster's Speller painstakingly retyped for modern use by Don Potter.

With younger students, we recommend using a small whiteboard as a slate for work with Webster, it's much more interactive and useful than working from a book or a printed page. Syllables that end in a consonant have a short vowel sound: ab, eb, ib, ob, ub. Syllables that end in a vowel have a long vowel sound: ba, be, bi, bo, bu, by. Students should be able to sound out and spell all the syllables in the syllabary (Lessons 1 -12, page 13 – 14) on their own before they move on to learning words. Teach them in order, randomly, and also contrasting syllables: ob, bo; ip, pi. Older students can work from a book. For older remedial students prone to guessing, we recommend the uppercase version, the format helps reduce guessing.

Younger students may need to see a word broken up by syllables with hyphens (i.e. be-fore) a few times before they can figure out how to divide it on their own. First grade readers in the 1700's and early 1800's also had words broken up by syllables. Don Potter's version of Webster's Speller has spaces (i.e. be fore), which usually works for an older student but for can confuse young students. 40L volunteers recommend working on a whiteboard--it holds interest better and also emphasizes the left to right factor as you're writing letters one by one from left to right. Also, working from a whiteboard allows you to write them words out with hyphens.

It can take students a month or two to finally get ca, ce, ci, co, cu, cy (kay, see, sigh, ko, cue, sigh) down pat. If the rest of the syllables are mastered, you can move past the syllabary at that point and go on to the rest of the Webster lessons, reviewing ca, ce, ci, co, cu, cy daily until your student can read and spell these syllable with ease.

For a remedial student, 40L volunteers recommend all uppercase to help prevent B/D confusion. Also, the uppercase letters are much clearer and easier to read, especially for a young student. Don Potter likes to use cursive, another way to prevent B/D confusion, and it also helps keep focus on left to right reading and writing.

When teaching students of several different ages or ability, you can do a little bit of group work on the syllabary each day, then have each student move on to work on spelling and sounding out the section to which they have progressed. When students get stuck, point them to the appropriate part of the syllabary and have them say the entire row, then the syllable with which they are having troubles. Then, have them go back to the word. Eventually, they will be able to work out their own difficulties using this technique. Your syllabary will soon be as tattered and worn out as the syllabaries of those children who learned to read using the classical method of the syllabary in ages past.

For some audio and video files to help you understand how to use Webster's Speller, you can watch 40L's 6.2mB, 20 minute QuickTime movie explaining how to use Webster's Speller. There is also a version for iPods in m4v. There are also videos available on 40L's YouTube Webster's Speller Playlist.

Because of its focus on spelling and its foundation of the syllabic nature of sound, Webster's Speller may prevent and cure dyslexia. It also teaches in a method that avoids the poor reading habits caused by sight words and guessing from context. 40L volunteers have found with their remedial students that they do best when they are taught single words and syllables in isolation. We recommend that you do not move on to stories or sentences until they have learned to properly sound out words from left to right and have practiced this for a while. Webster's Speller works on words in isolation before moving on to reading selections. Writing the words in uppercase is also helpful for remedial students, it helps break the guessing habits developed from sight words because uppercase hides the word shapes made with lowercase letters.

A course of study that focuses on syllables looks like this:

Webster's Speller

The speller was designed both as a book to teach beginners to read and spell [see 2 below], and for review and advanced spelling work for older scholars.

Parker's First Reader

All words of two or more syllables are separated into syllables. Most of the reading selections impart useful knowledge or teach a moral lesson. The introductory lessons are a review of the spelling book, with this cautionary note: "Designed as a review of the spelling-book,--not to supersede it.

Parker’s National Second Reader

Difficult words are separated into syllables before each lesson, and those that are not phonetically regular are followed by their pronunciation with diacritical markings. Difficult words also include a short definition shown before the lesson. As with the First Reader, most selections teach a moral or practical lesson.

Parker’s National Third Reader

On page 12, there is a form of the syllabary called “Tonic and Subtonic Combinations” for review before the reading lessons. The book begins with elocution exercises, then moves on to teaching grammar, then has reading exercises, most of which teach a moral or practical lesson.

Parker’s National Fourth Reader

This reader teaches even more elocution lessons. The reading selections still are mainly practical and moral in nature, but with a branching out into more poetry and a deeper study of history. Words that are phonetically irregular are marked diacritically to aid pronunciation.

Parker’s National Fifth Reader

The Fifth Reader also begins with elocution exercises. It then moves on to biographies, Shakespeare, and poetry. There are a few teaching passages, especially in history. Each passage concludes with a short Biography of the author. Again, phonetically irregular words are diacritically marked to show pronunciation. Here is the first two paragraphs of an early selection by Edward Gibbon on reading: the words fellow and gross are marked to show a long o sound, phonetically ambiguous in fellow and phonetically irregular in gross:

1. READING is the nourishment of the mind ; for, by reading, we know our Creator, his works, ourselves chiefly, and our fellow-creatures. But this nourishment is easily converted into poison. Salmasius had read as much as Grotius,--perhaps more ; but their different modes of reading made the one an enlightened philosopher, and the other, to speak plainly, a pedant, puffed up with a useless erudition.

2. Let us read with method, and propose to ourselves an end to which all our studies may point. Through neglect of this rule, gross ignorance often disgraces great readers, who, by skipping hastily and irregularly from one subject to another, make themselves incapable of combining their ideas. So many detached parcels of knowledge can not form a whole.

Note the high reading grade level achieved with a thorough study and review of syllables. The reading grade level of the Fourth Reader would challenge many high school students and the Fifth Reader would challenge a few college students today.

In the late 1800's, a series of books with words divided into syllables based on the divisions in Webster were developed. You can purchase a few reprints of these books and download many for free from Google Books.

40L hopes you have as much success teaching Webster's Speller as our volunteers have had. We would like to see this 18th Century masterpiece flourish in today's 21st Century schools. Designed for use in One-Room Schoolhouses, Webster's Speller can be used in any type of instructional setting. It can be used for one-on-one tutoring, for homeschools with students of several different ages, or in today's public and private schools. Webster's Speller is a powerful method combining phonics and spelling that teaches children to read at advanced reading grade levels at a young age through its use of syllables. A draft version of the Weekly Webster Schedule can be used to help you track you progress through the Speller.

1. Syllables were so important that they have a very long entry in Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. In fact, they were assigned names according to the number of syllables in the word, according to the entry for syllable.

2. Spelling Books in the 1700's and early 1800's were used for both phonics and spelling purposes, and were used to teach children to read. Noah Webster himself explains this in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. The entry for spelling-book reads, "n. A book for teaching children to spell and read."