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What is a syllable?

A syllable is a unit of a word that contains a vowel sound, and which gives words their characteristic beat when spoken. So, for example, photo has two syllables (photo), photograph has three syllables (photograph), and photography has four syllables (photography). All words have at least one syllable, e.g. go, hard, knock. The main thing to remember is that it’s not the way a word is spelled that’s important but how it sounds.

To help you further, think of the popular party song ‘Happy Birthday’. Each syllable is a different beat in the song, i.e.

Hap – py Birth – day to you.

Hap – py Birth – day to you.

Hap – py Birth – day dear Da – vid.

Hap – py Birth – day to you.

Look at the following words and see if you can work out how many syllables they contain (you may need to say them aloud, as it’s the sound that matters).

tent forest picnic Hamsterley excited
syllable characteristic envelope dog lovingly
cautious tray florist hippopotamus penguin
dentistry button pretending invigorating pie

[Suggested answers are given at the end of the page]


For some words it’s not always easy to decide how many syllables there are. For example, how many syllables do you think they are in the following word?


If you base your judgment solely on how it’s written you may decide that it’s three (because it has three vowels), i.e.

diff – er – ent

However, you would have to be a very careful and precise speaker to say this in an everyday conversation with three syllables. It is more usual for this to be shortened to just two syllables when we are in a conversation, i.e.

diff’ – rent

Another example is the word every. If you were a very careful speaker you may decide that it contains three syllables, i.e.

ev – e – ry

However, again it’s more common in conversation to shorten this to just two syllables, i.e.

ev’ – ry

It’s not always possible to avoid examples like this. However, we’ve tried to keep these instances to a minimum in this pack. So, if you decide that a particular word has, say, just two syllables instead of three, this shouldn’t affect the timing of the exercises too much.


tent 1 forest 2 picnic 2 Hamsterley 3 excited 2
syllable 3 characteristic 5 envelope 3 dog 1 lovingly 3
cautious 2 tray 1 florist 2 hippopotamus 5 penguin 2
dentistry 3 button 2 pretending 3 invigorating 5 pie 1


download worksheet purple

Download Syllables worksheet

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