Multisyllable words

Breaking up multisyllable words

When first introducing multisyllable words to learners, I like to break them into separate syllables with little dots, like this:

crick·et       ba·na·na      hel·i·cop·ter        hip·po·pot·a·mus

Dots are more subtle than hyphens or spaces, but help beginners to see the syllable boundaries, and know where to stop and blend each "mouthful" of the word.

I don't ask learners to put these dots in themselves when writing/spelling, I just put them in new words for the first time a learner reads them.

What makes multisyllable words harder?

As well as all the skills required to read and spell one-syllable words, learners reading multisyllable words have to:

  • Work out where one syllable ends and the next one begins,
  • Learn the many extra spelling patterns used in multisyllable words e.g. the "ti" in "action", the "y" in "funny" and the "age" in "luggage",
  • Keep all the syllables in memory long enough to say each whole word,
  • Work out whether any of the syllables are unstressed, by trying out different stress patterns.

How do dots help?

Dots breaking up the syllables allow learners to focus on learning new spellings, trying out sounds and stress patterns and keeping the whole lot in memory, without having to also work out the syllable boundaries themselves.

Dots stop learners from relying too much on how long a word looks, and help them understand that multisyllable words can look short (e.g. "idea" has four letters but three syllables) and one-syllable words can look long (e.g. "strengths"). What matters are the vowels – there has to be a vowel in (almost – see this earlier blog post) every syllable.

These dots are introduced in my level 7 workbook, which introduces multisyllable words, and continue in the Level 8 one, which practises vowel spellings in multisyllable words.

Perhaps if we could put syllable dots in all non-decodable children's books, they'd be easier for beginners to tackle. Too often, learners just look at the first part of a long word and guess the rest, because they don't know how to break it up and sound it out syllable by syllable.

How do I know where to put a dot in a multisyllable word?

It's possible to argue about the location of syllable boundaries e.g. is it "hipp·o" or "hip·po"?

The linguistic purist in me prefers not to break up spellings that represent a single sound like "pp" and "ck" and "tch". However, when writing the word "hippo", saying the "p" twice seems to help learners to write it twice too.

If you go with the linguistic purist approach, you probably won't need me to tell you that it's necessary to break up double letters when they represent two sounds rather than one – the "cc" in "soccer" (socc·er) compared with the "cc" in "accept" (ac·cept).

Other strategies for helping with multisyllable words

I'd be interested to hear what other strategies readers of this blog are using to systematically help learners with multisyllable words. It's often assumed that learners will be able to work these words out once they know the basics of sounding out, and the main spellings used in one-syllable words.

However, I'm not a big fan of teaching learners part of the spelling system and then leaving them to work the rest out for themselves. Reading and spelling are such critical skills for learning in general that I'd prefer to cover as many spelling patterns as other priorities and available time permit.

4 thoughts on “Multisyllable words

  1. Shona

    As far as using syllabification or chunking of some sort for decoding by the student in unmarked text, I thought this approach looked interesting and makes explicit to the student the word attack skills needed on their own. https://www.ontrackreading.com/phonics-program/multisyllable-method-overview However, it would make words like ‘accept’ and ‘accede’ hard to decode where the twin consonants say different sounds and would need to add the further exception that if the second c is followed by e, i or y then it says /s/ and is separated. Would love your thoughts.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Shona, I find this a funny way of thinking about breaking up syllables, if I understand it correctly the instruction is to break after every vowel, except if that creates an initial consonant sequence that is not permissible in English, if there is a doubled consonant (what about ck?) or if the following chunk is hard to say (not sure what that means, and this will vary by home language in ELL learners). We should be teaching kids what the allowable prevocalic AND postvocalic consonant sequences are in English (thousands of syllables end with consonants and consonant combinations), plus phoneme manipulation skills and knowledge of which spellings can represent what sounds, and then they can apply this knowledge the way skilled readers do, trying plausible pronunciations from most to least common till they get a word that they know. You can watch people doing this on Youtube here: https://youtu.be/jA6c7DcvES0. Of course if the word is not in a child’s phonological lexicon (they haven’t heard this word before) then they won’t come up with a word they know, and will just have to go with what they think the pronunciation is, till they hear it spoken and can correct themselves. I learnt the word “stoic” from a book and thought it was pronounced to rhyme with “oik” for years, till I embarrassed myself saying it to a specialist ASD paediatrician one day and she gave me a funny look, but was too nice to correct me (sigh). Also this “there’s a rule, just look at the letters” kind of approach also doesn’t really help kids with spellings that look like digraphs but are not digraphs, e.g. the ai in mosaic, the ea in area. I think a more flexible approach is needed and that skilled readers and spellers do take a much more flexible approach, and that rather than trying to teach verbal rules, we should just lead by example, choosing the words we teach carefully so they make each new bit of information clear, and teaching in an I Do, We Do, You Do kind of way. In spelling we are trying to teach procedural knowledge, not declarative knowledge. Hope that makes sense! Alison

      Reply
      1. Shona

        I think that last bit made particular sense – teaching procedural knowledge rather than declarative knowledge – a working knowledge in context rather than rules. Also requires good oral vocab. as you said. I guess where I was becoming confused is the research shows explicit teaching is needed a la synthetic phonics rather than analytical. So I was wondering what explicit looks like in older readers approaching mulitsyllabic words as I have read that interventions on syllable attack make a difference as some readers begin to struggle more at this point. I understand his method is based on a very thorough knowledge of phonograms prior (e.g. ea can make these sounds, ck is a digraph, c followed by e/i/y represents /s/ and that these over-ride those chunking rules – wasn’t clear to me but I emailed him) but, of course, this looks like it wouldn’t help with mosaic or area but, I imagine would still help with the vast majority of words. ??? He felt that a system gave students so much success that it encouraged kids with guessing habits especially with long words to abandon them in favour of careful reading in a left-right progression, following the sounds and recognising tweaking would still be needed. But I always appreciate your wisdom so perhaps a more flexible approach is the best. I don’t know.

        Reply
        1. alison Post author

          Well, working with little people often means you have to simplify stuff, so I am not overly concerned about the correct way to break up multisyllable words, there is more than one way to do it. The fact of doing it with a vowel in each syllable is probably beneficial however you do it, rather than encouraging kids to try to memorise the look of words or recite letter names or whatever. I will try not to make the indeterminate perfect the enemy of the good!

          Reply

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