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Multisyllable Decoding: Exceptions

Now we address the use of, and rationale for, the three exceptions to the main rule.

The Main Rule is:

Stop each chunk after the vowel sound and try the First Vowel Sound.

The Three Exceptions are:

1. Add the next sound to the chunk if it is a doubled consonant.

2. Add the next sound to the chunk if it is a marker.

3. Add the next sound to the chunk if the following chunk is “hard to say“.

Use of, and Rationale for, Exception #1

Add the next sound to the chunk if it is a doubled consonant.

(As mentioned earlier here, the concept of doubling a consonant  to mark a short vowel sound was conceived by a scribe named Orm in the 12th century AD.)

Your child is taught to first stop a chunk after the vowel sound, and then examine the next chunk. If that next chunk begin with a doubled consonant, he is simply taught to append it to the preceding chunk. Thus, rabbit becomes first, ra bbit, and then is adjusted to rabb it.

Now, here's the important part. Because your child has already gone through the worksheets that build the logic for the reason for doubled consonants (essentially, to keep hopping from looking the same as hoping), you can now easily explain that any chunk that has the doubled consonant added to it is very likely to be pronounced correctly the first time through, but only if the First Vowel Sound is used. Note the two points of emphasis here. First, that chunk is very likely to be correct and doesn't need to be retried with a Second or Third Vowel Sound. And second, for this to work your child has to consistently use the First Vowel Sound on the first attempt at decoding an unfamiliar word.

Note: Depending upon the age of the child, it at some point becomes necessary to point out that two common exceptions occur. One is the spelling “oll” which can contain either a first or second vowel sound (dollar, roller) and the second is the spelling “all” which can contain either a first or third vowel sound (mallard, taller.)

Use of, and Rationale for, Exception #2

Add the next sound to the chunk if it is a marker.

If your child has gone over the worksheet on the page First Vowel Sound Markers, he should now have a reasonably good understanding of what a marker is. As is the case with doubled consonants, a marker is specifically defined as marking the preceding vowel sound as a First Vowel Sound, that is, as the short sound.

So again, your child is taught to first stop a chunk after the vowel sound, and then examine the next chunk. If that next chunk begin with one of the four markers, x, ck, tch, or dg, he is simply taught to append it to the preceding chunk. Thus, locker becomes first, lo cker, and then is adjusted to lock er.

Again, here's the important part. Because your child has already gone through the worksheets that teach him what the markers are and what they do, you can now easily explain that any chunk that has a marker added to it is very likely to be pronounced correctly the first time through, but only if the First Vowel Sound is used. Again, note the two points of emphasis here. First, that chunk is very likely to be correct and doesn't need to be retried with a Second or Third Vowel Sound. And second, for this to work your child has to consistently use the First Vowel Sound on the first attempt at decoding an unfamiliar word.

Note: As with the doubled consonant exceptions "oll" and "all," there are exceptions here also, though quite minor. The marker tch fails with butch and butcher, and the marker ck fails with cuckoo, but that's about it. Just be careful to pronounce catch to rhyme with hatch and not with sketch.

Use of, and Rationale for, Exception #3

Add the next sound to the chunk if the following chunk is "hard to say."

The underlying rationale for this exception was discussed on the page Multisyllable Method Overview. The relevant portion is quoted again here:

When the next spoken syllable would have to begin with an awkward blend, then one or even two consonant sounds are tacked on naturally to the preceding syllable. Thus, constant is broken in spoken syllables not as co-nstant, but rather as con-stant because nst is not a permitted blend in English. Sometimes two sounds have to be moved, as with the gently. It breaks apart naturally not as ge-ntly nor as gen-tly, but as gent-ly, because neither ntl nor tl are permissible beginning blends in English words.

These breaks happen quite naturally in spoken syllables because only a limited number of specific consonant combinations are used to begin English words, and this limitation extends to the internal syllables as well. Any child, even though completely unaware of syllable rules, will tend to naturally chunk constantly as con-stant-ly once he knows what you mean by asking him to break the word up into chunks. Co-nsta-ntly will never occur to him, nor will con-stan-tly.

Because of that last line in the quoted portion above, that the awkward chunking will never occur to him, it is quite easy to teach a child to apply the third exception when he is having trouble pronouncing the beginning of the following chunk. Technically, he’s encountering an illegal blend in English, but that’s too deep a concept for a six year old. It suffices to have him explain to you that it’s hard to say, and that he’s moving a sound to make the next chunk easier to say.

And now, once more, you can now explain that, as long as he uses the First Vowel Sound on the first pass, the addition of an additional letter (or two) to the chunk tends to "lock in" the First Vowel Sound and so that chunk is very likely to be correctly pronounced.

Note: It's really not necessary to discuss this with your child, but essentially what's happening is that a closed syllable has been created with the addition of the extra sound, and closed syllables tend to contain First (short) Vowel Sounds. As with the First Exception, you will eventually encounter words where adding a single letter l to form al or ol will sometimes yield a chunk that doesn't contain a First Vowel Sound, e.g., hal ter and hol ster.

The Three Exceptions Share a Common Characteristic

Note this about all three of the exceptions: Each one removes an element from a following chunk that normally is not used to begin a word in English.

Thus, exception #1 removes doubled consonants from the start of a chunk and English words don’t start with doubled consonants generally.

Meanwhile, exception #2 removes the elements ck, tch, dg and x, all of which are never found at the beginning of English words (except x in certain contrived names, but hardly ever in common words.)

And exception #3 by design removes elements specifically because they form part of an illegal blend at the start of English words.

In other words, to your child it will seem perfectly logical to remove any of these elements from the beginning of one chunk and tack them onto the end of the preceding one. This is not an inconsequential advantage, as it make teaching the exceptions easier; they simply don't belong at the beginning.

The Payoff: Adoption of a Far Better Decoding Strategy

Once a child has learned to chunk multisyllable words in this manner, he can gradually be trained to understand that the chunks formed with exceptions need not be retested, particularly if you keep emphasizing that fact (as I, indeed, did to you in the above discussion.)  In nearly all cases, if he fails to derive the correct word in the first attempt at decoding a long word, he should look at the chunks that still end with vowel sounds and try second and third vowel sounds in an organized manner until he figures out the word. With a very large percentage of multisyllable words, he will derive the correct word in either the first or second attempt at the word. And as he begins to experience this level of success, he will gradually change his strategy from guessing to organized decoding.

That is the key to the success of this approach. Your child, properly trained in the method, will experience a high enough success rate in reading unfamiliar multisyllable words that he will decide to dump the guessing strategy because he’s found something that works better. If you’ve already tried another multisyllable decoding approach and he’s still guessing, it’s because the other method did not give him the confidence he needed to discard the guessing strategy, and so eventually he reverted to guessing as a primary strategy.

Some words are challenging, no matter what method is used, and it is not the end of the world if a child has to ask “What’s this word, anyway?” Better yet, he can be trained to use the dictionary, or, I suppose in time, just type it into his computer and press the pronounce key. But no matter how useful such a key would be, just as it’s a pain to use the dictionary several times a page in complex text, so too it will prove to be a pain to have to request a computer to pronounce unknown words. The far better solution is to give your child the proper tools to efficiently decode most of the multisyllable words he will encounter, assuming they are in his listening vocabulary already.

If you have reached this point in the multisyllable discussion and have a child you want to teach using the method described here you now have two choices. If your child’s only decoding weakness is that he is uncomfortable with unfamiliar multisyllable words, you can continue on through the next four pages where you will find all of the necessary word lists along with detailed instructions for their use. You can download these and follow the instructions on these pages.

However, if your child also needs to learn the advanced code, a better alternative might be to use the OnTrack Reading Advanced Code Phonics Workbook. If you decide to do so, rest assured that virtually everything covered so far in this multisyllable discussion, including all the worksheets and explanations, are contained in the workbook and its accompanying instructions. You will not need to refer to the website at all.