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.

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