Teach Your Students How to Improve their Spanish Spelling

What is a Syllabary and How to Use One

A syllabary? “What’s that?,” you might wonder.

The Oxford English Dictionary says this word came into the English language in 1586, although the Latin syllabarium was well known. So, what is it?

It is a table that shows the various possible combinations of consonants and vowels, well… the one that seems to most matter for English-speaking students of Spanish involves the spelling and pronunciation of certain consonants, particularly the letters c/q, s/z and hard or soft pronunciations of certain other consonant-vowel combinations, such as g and d. But since a picture is worth a thousand words, here they are:

K // S/θ

ca // sa/za

que // ce/ze

qui // ci/zi

co // so/zo

cu // su/zu

hard G soft G


gue/güe ge/je/xe

gui/güi gi/ji/xi



hard D soft D






trilled R “tap” R as in tt of palmetto

-rr- -r-




Remember that the hard or soft pronunciations of the letters B/V do not depend on the vowels that may follow them but rather on whether either of these letters are surrounded by vowels or not.

Although many students are not ready to see such schema, these are handy charts for those frequent occasional times when an individual student is having difficulty with spelling and shows up during office hours. Most spelling problems are easily diagnosed and best solved by dictation exercises.

The last category, to trill or not to trill the R, is best explained thus:

If the letter R is double, it is always trilled. If the single letter R is between vowels, it is a tap R. If an R begins a word, it is trilled. If R follows N, L, or (admittedly sometimes D), it is always trilled.

Here are a few examples of the trilled, single R category:

Roberto, raro – the first Rs are trilled, but the second ones are not.

enredo – trilled alrededor – first R is trilled

I suggest photocopying only the syllabaries above and keeping a few copies of each one handy. You'll have something a student can carry away from an office hour session with you.