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Chunking Multisyllable Words

By Rodney Everson • Updated Jul 27th, 2023

OnTrack Reading Phonics Program

Teach your student the phonics advanced code in as little as 8 weeks with our 170-page workbook and instruction manual.

Author’s Note

If you've arrived at this page looking for information on chunking words, and want to learn one of the most effective ways to teach a child to efficiently chunk longer multisyllable words, you should start on the page Multisyllable Method Overview instead. There you will find an extremely easy-to-teach method for tackling longer words that will give your child so much confidence that even a longstanding guessing habit might be overcome. And it's free here on the site, including PDF's of the word lists you will need for instruction.

The OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method integrates quite easily with the Ms. Spalding's original curriculum, as described in her book, The Writing Road to Reading (WRTR). Furthermore, with the writing of each new multisyllable word in the notebook, the Main Rule and Three Exceptions of the chunking strategy get reinforced, as you will see after we discuss the method.

The Main Rule

Stop each chunk after the vowel sound and use the first vowel sound on the first attempt to decode an unfamiliar word.

Obviously, if your child is familiar with the word, he should use the correct vowel sound in each chunk, but if he's not, he should be trained to try the first vowel sound on the initial attempt.

The First Exception

If the next chunk starts with a doubled consonant, add it to the chunk before it.

Explain that a doubled consonant is just a consonant letter that is repeated, giving examples like bb, dd, tt, etc.

Author’s Note

You might need to explain what is meant by an exception, using an example of a household rule that is always followed "except when..." For example, you probably have a main rule regarding bedtime. Exceptions might be Friday and Saturday night, or on a special occasion, etc. Thus, you follow the main rule except when it's Friday or Saturday; Fridays and Saturdays are exceptions to the main bed time rule.

The Second Exception

If the next chunk is "hard to say," move a letter to the chunk before it.

The second exception utilizes the concept of an illegal English blend. We only start words with certain consonant combinations, or blends, and there aren't a lot of them so most children readily recognize them. Thus, words can start with "bl" (black) or "br" (brick) but not "bc," "bd," "bf," bg," etc. Similar situations exist for all the consonants used to begin words. The words beginning with "s" have several more legal options ("sc," "scr," "sk," "sl," "sm," "sn," "sp," "spl," "spr," "st," "str," and "sw") but that's about as complex as it gets. Again, most children have an inherent understanding of legal English blends because they are always using them when speaking.

Program Tip

In the OnTrack Reading Advanced Code Phonics Workbook, the Second Exception addresses Markers, and the Third Exception deals with the next chunk being "hard to say." The order has been reversed here because of the order of words in the Ayres List. That is, no multisyllable words that include markers are found in early parts of the list.

The Third Exception

If the next chunk starts with a marker, move it to the chunk before it.

The third exception utilizes the concept of a marker. When you taught the phonograms "x," "ck," "tch," and "dge," you called them all markers. Now, you again explain that a marker always follows a single vowel letter and that it "marks" the sound of that letter as the first vowel sound. You should add that markers are never found at the beginning of words, and that they should not begin a chunk either.

An Example

The first two-syllable word in the Ayres List is little. When you reach it, you will explain the Main Rule and the First Exception. Then you write "little" on the board and indicate where you would stop the first chunk using the Main Rule. But then you draw a line under the "tt" and refer to the First Exception. Thus, the first chunk becomes "litt" and the remaining chunk is just the phonogram "le" that has already been taught. The only coding is to underline the double "t" in the first chunk and the digraph "le" in the second chunk. Because your child has tried the first sound for the phonogram i, on the first attempt through the word, in accordance with the Main Rule, he will decode "little" on the first pass through the word.

Compare this to Ms. Spalding's process in WRTR of dividing little into syllables. First, the requirement to break the "tt" into two separate syllables splits a single sound into two pieces, requiring the child to blend the syllables "lit" and "tle" to read the word, versus blending the chunks "litt" and "le." Second, the ending "e" has a complicated explanation requiring rule number 4 and notation to that effect, compared to just teaching the phonogram "le" as a digraph for /ul/, which it is.

What the Exceptions Have in Common

All three of the Exceptions share two important characteristics.

Doubled consonants, markers, and illegal blends don't belong at the start of a word or chunk

First, none of them belong at the beginning of a word, so it is easy for a child to remove them from the beginning of a chunk. Words don't begin with doubled consonants, like "bb" or "tt," so taking them off of a following chunk and adding them to the preceding one makes sense. Similarly words don't begin with any of the markers, "x," "ck," "dge," and "tch." They are endings of words, not beginnings, so again it makes sense to a child to remove them from the beginning of a chunk. And finally, by definition, illegal blends do not occur in English words, so although this exception appears to be more complicated than the first two, a child really has no difficulty deciding that the second chunk in a word like "control" should not be "ntrol."

So, the first characteristic is a practical one in that each exception is just having a child remove something from the beginning of a chunk that shouldn't be there anyway.

Each exception "locks in" the First Vowel Sound

The second characteristic is that all three exceptions tend to "lock in" the First Vowel Sound of the chunk wherever they occur. Doubled consonants were actually designed by a scribe named Orm in the 12th century to mark the preceding vowel sound as /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, or /u/. Next, in most words that require the application of the second exception, the affected chunk becomes a formal closed syllable and closed syllables nearly always contain short vowel sounds. (Closed syllables with "al" or "ol" don't always contain the first, or short, vowel sound, e.g., al-ter and gol-den.) The four markers designated here also consistently follow short vowel sounds.

An Easy Strategy: Test the Rest

Therefore, if you instruct your child to always attempt the first vowel sounds in the chunks of an unfamiliar word, any chunks that have had one of the Exceptions applied to it will almost always turn out to be correctly pronounced on the first pass. This leaves only those chunks that end in vowel sounds to be tested for different vowel sounds and your child should be trained to consistently test second, then third, and even fourth, vowel sounds in those remaining chunks. Of course, it's also possible that a consonant spelling also needs to be tested in the case of those consonant phonograms that have more than one pronunciation.

A Note on Blending Chunks

In the case of the First and Third Exceptions, the resulting chunks are actually more awkward to blend together, but the information gained from the vowel sound being locked in is worth it. Nevertheless, blending "rabb-it" is harder than blending "ra-bbit" (Try saying each case two or three times and you'll soon see that chunking "rabbit" as "rabb-it" is more awkward to pronounce than "ra-bbit." Similarly, "back-ing" is more awkward to pronounce than "ba-cking." Again, though, the information gained by adding the marker makes that move worthwhile.

The next page, Examining the Ayres List, will go over some multisyllable examples so that you can see the obvious benefits of switching to the OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method.

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