SyllaBits: ​​With building blocks to practice and refine, / Your scansion skills with grow with every line an online, mobile game to help theatre practitioners and literature students practice the skill of scansion. Poetry, since the classical period, was meant to be heard. If you have ever studied the poems of William Shakespeare, you are likely familiar with the phrase “iambic pentametre.” Iambic pentameter is the regular pattern of long and short syllables used, from the sixteenth century until today, by poets and playwrights working in English. Learning how to identify the six combinations of syllables that can make up a line of pentameter, called scansion, is key.

Scanning a line is a lot like solving a puzzle, as there are only six kinds of metrical feet (two-to-three syllable combinations) one can find and use in English: iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee, and pyrrhic. Scansion is a crucial skill not only for scholars working on poetry from Geoffrey Chaucer to Edgar Allan Poe, but also for classical actors when preparing to perform plays by Shakespeare. English Renaissance plays employed the closed form of iambic pentameter (lines comprising five metrical feet each) for two reasons: it facilitated memorization; and provided cues as where to place syllabic stress, aiding in correct pronunciation and clarity of phrasing. If you recall attending a Shakespeare play where you felt you could really understand what was being said, it is likely the actors scanned first, mapping out the stresses before they memorized.

A growing group of writers, self-styled New Formalists including the likes of A. E. Stallings and Tyehimba Jess, are also driving a renewed interest in sonnets and other closed forms requiring the ability to scan. From the inability to use this hands-on strategy in the classroom due to the coronavirus global pandemic as well as the need to teach classical poetic forms with a diversity of poetic voices arose the conception of this mobile game. The web-based apparatus is under development by a team of advanced undergraduates and Computer Science graduate students, with methodology and pedagogy research assistance by graduate students in English Literature.

This project is in progress with the proposed launch of a beta version, and was first tested with users in spring of 2022. 


Elizabeth E. Tavares, CARI Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor of English with the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies

Jeff Gray, Professor of Computer Science and director of the Randall Research Scholars Program

Chris S. Crawford, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and director of the Human-Technology Interaction Lab