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Multisyllable Decoding: The Main Rule

Earlier, I stated a basic rule along with three exceptions. They are repeated below for easy reference.

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“.

Developing a New Strategy

The chances are good that a struggling reader will have developed a firmly-held guessing strategy after a time. While this can be due to the difficulties he might have encountered dealing with an undiagnosed vision issue, it's also likely to have been augmented by the teaching of strategies that explicitly emphasize guessing. Strategies such as "look for the words inside the word," "use the first letters as a starting point," "look at the suffix and try to figure out the root word," etc., are all strategies that fail to train a child to tackle an unfamiliar word, from left to right, step by step, as he should.

Applying the Main Rule First

The Main Rule tells your child to look for the first chunk, then the second, and even the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth, if they're present, and to stop each chunk after he's reached the vowel sound. Now, this does require preparations. Your child has to recognize digraphs, know what a vowel sound actually is, along with the many possible spellings, and must be skillful enough to blend the resulting chunks together to try to recognize a word in the end result. In addition, he must have a firmly established first option for testing each vowel sound he encounters.

Once your child is properly prepared, however, he will soon learn that just following the Main Rule is sufficient to accurately read hundreds of multisyllable words quite successfully. For example, if he encounters tablet, and chunks it appropriately as ta blet, he will correctly decode the word.

Be Prepared for Guessing

Now let’s say your child encounters the word paper. He says “pa-per” using the first vowel sound, /a/. If you’ve got a struggling reader who gets this far in the process, I’ll tell you what he’s likely to do next, assuming he said “pa-per” using the /a/ sound like you’ll be training him to do. He’ll then quickly say something like “pamper.” In other words, he’ll guess, like he’s used to doing because he has not yet been taught an effective way to deal with multisyllable words.

So, the first thing you have to do is convince him to say “pa-per” (again, using the /a/ sound so it rhymes with tapper.) Then, and this is very important, instead of guessing, you have to convince him to stop and ask himself if what he’s pronounced is a word. This is crucial. Instead of jumping immediately to a guess, he has to say to himself “Is papper a word?”

Once your child has made that shift in strategy you then ask him what the second sound is while pointing at the letter a in the first chunk. If he doesn’t remember, just tell him it’s /ae/ and let him try to decode paper again. At first your child might struggle with this, but in time he will come to see that it’s a reliable way to approach a strange word and begin to trust the strategy. As that process unfolds, he will also begin to actually learn what his choices for first, second, third and even fourth sounds are, because he will be using them regularly.

Some Common Behaviors to Expect

Also, don’t be surprised by the following behavior because it’s quite common among children who, for lack of a better strategy, have had to fall back on guessing as their primary decoding strategy. Your child will get through all three steps. He’ll say “pa-per” (using the /a/ sound like you’re teaching him) then jump to pamper. Then he’ll finally quit guessing at it and ask himself whether “papper” is a word. Then he’ll even try the second vowel sound and you’ll think that he’s finally going to get it because he’s actually saying "pay-per" with the right sounds. Then he’ll look right up at you and say “paymper.” That’s right, the /m/ sound will jump back into the word. It happens all the time with my clients at the beginning of this process. (By the way, I spelled what he said as paymper so that you would be able to read it quickly, but using the phonetic notation it would be /p/ae/m/-/p/er/.)

Don’t be overly concerned about this if you see it, because such behavior can be changed with consistent guidance. Some children need to have their reading habits completely restructured because they’ve chosen poor strategies (like guessing) and these strategies have become very embedded. With these children you really do have to change the way they deal with print. Fortunately, this method is so easy to learn, and it works so quickly, that most children realize soon something's up and start to apply it appropriately.

Caution: Don’t Start Multisyllable Instruction Too Soon

If your child looks at a two-syllable word like tablet in the example above and says “ta–ble–t, rather than naturally finishing the second chunk with “blet,” you may have started multisyllable instruction too early. One-syllable instruction in most phonics curricula, including the one used in OnTrack Reading, is focused on breaking words into component sounds (segmenting) and putting them back together again (blending.)

Your child needs to become a capable blender of one-syllable words before pushing him into multisyllable instruction. The OnTrack Reading Advanced Code Phonics Workbook presents the chunked word rock–et as the first two-syllable word to be tackled. If a child has not acquired the blending capability to look at the first chunk and just say “rock,” and then at the second and say “et,” but instead says “/r/…/o/…/k/…..rock,” he’s probably not ready for multisyllable instruction.

Once your child becomes comfortable enough with one-syllable words to be able to more or less decode the new ones “on-the-run,” so to speak, he will be more likely to look at the last chunk in a word like tablet and simply say “blet.”

This page has explained the basics of applying  the Main Rule, and some of the behaviors that are often exhibited by a struggling reader at the start of using the multisyllable decoding method described here. If your child struggled with learning to blend one-syllable words, that same behavior is likely to crop up when blending chunks. Sounds will once again be omitted or added randomly as they were in one-syllable words. If that problem was never resolved at the one-syllable level, I highly recommend using the workbook and starting at the beginning to build the proper blending and segmenting skills.

The next page, Multisyllable Decoding: Exceptions, explains the logic behind the Three Exceptions to the Main Rule.