2 Classroom Strategies for Teaching Multisyllabic Words

2 Classroom Strategies for Teaching Multisyllabic Words
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By Lexia Curriculum Specialist and Speech-Language Pathologist Elizabeth Olsson, M.S., CCC-SLP

There are two related but different strategies to approach the identification of words with more than one syllable: syllable division and structural analysis.

While application of the phonic word attack strategies related to syllable division is important for identifying one- and two-syllable words, these strategies may not work as well for multisyllabic words (of more than two syllables) because so many of the syllables are unaccented and do not lend themselves to analysis by syllable type.

It is with these longer words that the application of structural analysis strategies can be helpful. These strategies involve the understanding that words are made up of prefixes, stems, and suffixes (the minimal meaningful units of language or morphemes) in both their spoken and written form.

Syllable division

Syllable types:

Because English has both a complex sound and spelling pattern structure, it is essential that students understand the syllabic structure of written words, which at times may differ from the rules that govern the spoken language. It is this written structure that signals how the vowel will be pronounced, and it is fundamental in reading one- and two-syllable words. To accomplish this, many phonics programs teach six syllable types and their corresponding pronunciation rules by focusing on the letter patterns within the syllable. For example, a vowel followed by one or more consonants has the short sound and is called a closed syllable (e.g. "hem," "dish"). On the other hand, a syllable that ends in a single vowel usually has the long sound and is called an open syllable (e.g. "he," "no").


Rules for syllable division:

Once students have mastered one or more of the syllable types, they may or may not be ready to move on to strategies for syllable division. Younger students may remain working on one-syllable words, while older students might want to move into two- or three-syllable words once closed syllables are mastered. For example, they could easily read words like "funnel" or even "fantastic" once they learn how to pronounce closed syllables and know the appropriate rule for syllable division (i.e. if single short vowels are separated by two consonants, divide between the consonants: fun/nel, fan/tas/tic). Being able to visually recognize the letter patterns that determine where to divide these words will help with reading.

Students are first taught to find the vowel letters in a word that make a sound (every syllable has only one vowel sound). This avoids confusion with a syllable that contains a silent "E," as in the word com/pete. Learners then look at what letters come between the vowels to decide what vowel sound to use—the long sound or the short sound.

The first syllable division pattern (VC/CV) indicates that when there are two consonant letters between the sounded vowels, you divide between them, creating a closed initial syllable with a short vowel (e.g. den/tist). The next two syllable division patterns involve words with only one consonant between the vowels (VCV). These types of words can be divided either before the consonant creating an open syllable with a long vowel as in la/bor or after the consonant, indicating an open syllable with a short vowel as in trav/el.  This is often referred to as the "flex" rule, in that students must be able to flex back and forth between the long sound in an open syllable (the more common of the two) and the short sound in a closed syllable until they come up with a familiar word.


Structural analysis

The division of words into syllables is not the same as into prefix, stem, and suffix. For example, using rules for syllable division, the word "predictable" would be divided into four syllables (pre/dic/ta/ble); this might help students come up with the word, but can sometimes be confusing because the vowel sound is only clearly pronounced in the accented syllable (i.e. "dic"). On the other hand, if using structural analysis strategies, "predictable" would be divided into three meaningful parts: prefix, stem, and suffix (pre/dict/able).

One of the advantages of teaching word identification strategies through structural analysis is that there is a finite number of prefixes, stems, and suffixes, which recur in many words (e.g. "export," "deport," "transport"; "explore," "explain," "extract"). Once students have learned the parts, they often report that these "jump out" at them in the words. These word parts also have meaning (e.g. "trans" means "across" and "port" means "to carry"), which can be helpful for storing and retrieving the letter patterns to aid word identification. A secondary advantage for language development is that this also increases vocabulary knowledge.

Based on their origin, English words can be divided into words stemming from Anglo-Saxon, Latin, or Greek. Anglo-Saxon-based words tend to be higher-frequency and deal with everyday life ("coat," "food," "rain"), while Latin-based words are often associated with government or law ("constitution," "administration," "structure"), and Greek words typically pertain to math, science, and the theater ("geometry," "synthesis," "proscenium"). Learning to read words with Latin and Greek origins through structural analysis can be extremely helpful.

Confusions related to the dictionary

The dictionary generally divides multisyllabic words into prefix, stem, and suffix when possible. However, depending on where students are in the developmental sequence of "word attack strategy" acquisition, it can be more effective to divide some words containing a prefix, stem, and suffix into syllables. For example, if students have not learned common spelling rules like the "drop-E" rule, identifying the word "revising" when it is divided into prefix, stem, and suffix (re/vis/ing) will be difficult. They will not know that the "I" in "vis" needs to  be pronounced as a long vowel because the silent "e" on the end of the stem "vise" was dropped when the suffix "ing" was added. However, if they divide this word into syllables, they will have no difficulty pronouncing it (re/vi/sing).

Once students have mastered the spelling rules and become aware of the prefixes, stems, and suffixes that make up words, the more effective strategy for dividing multisyllabic words is usually structural analysis. In addition, these meaningful word parts often link directly to the meaning of the word (e.g. "vis" means "to see" and  "re" means "again").

Both syllable division and structural analysis are effective strategies for word identification. That said, the more effective strategy depends on the knowledge base that the student brings to the task. For more helpful teaching tips and education insights, subscribe to the Lexia blog and receive the latest posts right in your inbox!


Looking for more resources?

  • Henry, M. & Redding, N. (2012). Patterns for Success in Reading and Spelling. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

  • Moats, L. (2000). Speech to print: Language essential for teachers. Baltimore: Brookes.

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