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Multisyllable Method Overview

The OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method is a decoding strategy for reading the longer words struggling readers often attempt to read by guessing. This method of word attack teaches your child to decode long multisyllabic words by first breaking them up into chunks, and then efficiently testing the vowel sounds in a selection of those chunks. This overview describes the steps to implement the multisyllable curriculum. The accompanying worksheets and word lists are free, and can be downloaded here on the website. 

This multisyllable curriculum is a component of the more comprehensive OnTrack Reading Phonics Program that is taught using the OnTrack Reading Advanced Code Phonics Workbook and accompanying instructions.

Should You Use Only the Multisyllable Curriculum?

You might have already determined the answer to that question. If you haven't yet done so, the information on the page Choosing the Right Phonics Program will help you decide whether your child is ready to go straight to the multisyllable method found on the following pages of this site.

The Logic Underlying the Design of the Multisyllable Curriculum

The natural verbal break in "spoken" syllables is usually after the vowel soundA few years back, someone posted a comment about verbal syllables on a website that I found interesting. The comment: Linguists recognize that a natural break in spoken syllables normally occurs immediately after the vowel sound. Essentially, I took that comment and developed a multisyllable decoding method around it. I’ve used the resulting method with almost 200 clients since then, fine-tuning it as I went. It works exceptionally well because it's based upon what a child actually hears when a word is pronounced.

All that is required of a child is to apply a single rule to break a multisyllable word down into something approaching syllables, while applying three easy-to-learn exceptions, and to then learn to test various options for the vowel sounds in a systematic manner. This process is described in detail on the next pages, but first it's helpful to understand why present methods are so confusing to many children, and especially to struggling readers.

The Problem with Traditional Syllables

Traditional syllable breaks are a poor platform upon which to base a method for decoding longer wordsWhere most multisyllable instruction goes awry is in adopting the written syllables as they have long been defined in Webster's dictionary. Unfortunately, Noah Webster made some poor decisions when it came to how he arbitrarily set syllable boundaries, decisions that have only recently begun to be reversed. The result of one such decision leads many curriculum designers to try to teach a young child to break syllables in words like rabbit and common between the doubled consonants, resulting in rab-bit and com-mon. In fact, there is only one /b/ sound in rabbit and one /m/ sound in common and it is potentially confusing to a young child to be told that he should be hearing two.

Webster also insisted on forming syllables on the basis of whether they should be open or closed. (A closed syllable has a consonant sound following a short vowel sound, whereas an open syllable ends with a long vowel sound.) As a result many curriculum designers expect a child to know that vapor is broken in two as va-por but that rapid is rap-id. They explain that closed syllables carry short vowel sounds and open syllables carry long vowel sounds. Left unexplained is how to determine whether to close any particular syllable or leave it open as well as what to do about words like father (fa-ther) where the vowel sound is neither long nor short. Needless to say, such an approach can confuse a first grader.

The Natural Break: After the Vowel Sound

In fact, the natural break in the spoken words, using the above examples, is after the vowel sound in each case (ra-bbit, co-mmon, va-por, ra-pid and fa-ther.) To convince yourself of this, just read the five words out loud, pausing very briefly at each break as indicated. Do this two or three times to feel the natural cadence. Now read these dictionary defined breaks (rab-bit, com-mon, va-por, rab-id, fa-ther.) Notice how awkward it is to pause on three of the examples now? This is because the natural spoken syllable break is after the vowel sound.

One important exception occurs, however. 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.

The "natural break" dictated by illegal English blends forms the basis of the Third Exception.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.

The OnTrack Reading Method Uses Chunks, Not Syllables

For instructional purposes, it wouldn’t do to redefine the word syllable for each child. And we are talking about spoken syllables anyway, so the way to handle it is to define a new word that means chunks of sound, and that word in this curriculum is just chunk. You just explain to your child that longer words are composed of chunks, illustrate the concept, and then mention that if he ever takes a syllable test and uses chunks instead he will fail it.

My clients learn that longer words are composed of several chunks and that each chunk has exactly one vowel sound in it. This is the one thing chunks and syllables have in common; each has exactly one vowel sound, so a five syllable word will have exactly five vowel sounds and it will divide into exactly five chunks

Support for Chunking from an Unexpected Source

Unlike all previous editions, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 11th Edition, copyright 2005, supports the above chunking strategy to a large degree. The pronunciations of the above examples, rabbit, common and rabid, now show the breaks at ra-bbit, co-mmon and ra-bid. (The syllable breaks remain unchanged; it's the pronunciation guide that follows each word that has changed.) The only discrepancy I can now find between the natural linguistic break and the Merriam-Webster pronunciation guide occurs when a chunk begins with one of the blends beginning with the letter s, such as sc (mas-cot), sk (mus-ket) and st (cas-ting) and then only when the blend is preceded by a short vowel sound. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether or not a child will get the correct word if he chunks them ma-scot, mu-sket and ca-sting, respectively, assuming that he does as instructed and tries First Vowel Sounds (short vowel sounds) on his first attempt at each word.

The next page describes The Main Rule and Three Exceptions that form the basis of the OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method.

Authors's Note: If you try this method and like it, and maintain a website at your home or school, feel free to link to this page so that others can learn of this unique, and freely available, method for decoding multisyllable words. Here are two comments from reviews of the OnTrack Reading Advanced Code Phonics Workbook (which incorporates the same method): "The book also includes an ingenious method by which to teach multi-syllable decoding - which should be tried by any teacher struggling to teach a reliable strategy / approach for reading two and three syllable words," and "Even my older daughter, after overhearing our sessions, told me she now uses this strategy to decode unfamiliar words."