At about 4 years old your child is starting to split words into syllables, this allows them to break down words into manageable sound lengths. A syllable is the largest phonological unit (one or a group of sounds) of a word and is like the rhythmic beat of the word.
Your child is starting to refine their sound unit detection skills, moving them on from the previous stage of hearing and detecting articulatory gestures or features in rhymes, to recognising them in syllables. They start to hear these sound units in different parts of a word, not just as the final sound unit of a word.
Spoken syllables are organised around the vowel sounds, making counting them easy, as the jaw drops when the vowel sound is spoken in the syllable. Try placing your hand under your jaw with your mouth closed before you say a word. Start with ‘cat’ you will notice the jaw drops once, this is because it is a one syllable (monosyllabic) word. Now try the same thing with the word ‘sunset’, your jaw drops twice as this is a two syllable (disyllabic) word, then try saying ‘important’, your jaw drops three times as this is a three syllable word (trisyllabic). Words that have more than three syllables such as hippopotamus are called polysyllabic words.
Each oral syllable has one vowel sound which can be on its own; be set between consonants or have a consonant(s) before or after it. For example:
cat has one syllable - fairy has two syllables - hippopotamus has five syllables
Most children will find it easier to identify syllables in compound words to start with. A compound word is formed by two words (root words) put together such as: sunset, hotdog, snowman and postman. They find it easier because the jaw tends to drop quite distinctly as we say the vowel sound in each of the root words and the slow speed at which we tend to say the word.
Children love to clap out the number of syllables in a word. It is important to say the word at a normal speed rather than really slowly as this can distort the word and make it difficult to hear the syllables. To start with your child does not need to be able to count the number of syllables in a word but just be able to recognise them by clapping, stamping or jumping for each syllable of a word. It is thought only about 50% of children can count out the syllables by the age of 4, so you can do the counting for them.
Being able to instinctively break down words into their syllables is the next step in breaking them into smaller logical sound chunks and an important skill set needed for later on when your child is developing their reading and spelling strategies.
How we identify syllables in speech is slightly different from how we use syllables to de-code for reading and as a spelling strategy, but we need to talk and hear it first before moving to the written form.
As your child interacts more with the world and those around them so their language and communications skills increase and the “Why?” stage is upon you. Yes! It can drive you insane at times but their brains are like a sponge, absorbing all sort of information.
It is at this stage that your child can easily misunderstand your explanations and develop misconceptions as they try to find reasons and meanings for themselves. So it can be useful to talk through some things again later, to check what they have understood or think about something. A good way of doing this is to ask them to tell someone else who was not there, perhaps Dad or an older brother/sister for instance. This way you can help them to develop a better understanding of the meaning of the word or concept. You can also broaden their experiences, on which to draw understanding, by setting up play scenarios or other activities..