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Multisyllabic Decoding: Problems with the Six Syllable Approach

If you have been searching for a method to teach a child to read multisyllabic words, you've probably encountered the method that teaches the six syllable types. A child is expected to learn each of the six forms of syllable, then apply that knowledge as he's attempting to decode a word with several syllables. As you, yourself, learned that method did it ever occur to you that you weren't previously taught those six syllable types, but that somehow you managed to learn to read all those longer words you read daily despite that lack of knowledge? So, maybe that's not the best way to approach a multisyllabic word after all?

The Six Syllable Types

The first two types are 1) open syllables and 2) closed syllables. I'll discuss those later.

The third type is the vowel + e syllable, in which the vowel sound is represented by a split vowel such as the "i-e" in "hive" or the "o-e" in "home." Awareness of that syllable type prepares a child to read words like "livelihood" (live-li-hood" and "behave" (be-have). 

The fourth type is the two-vowel letter syllable where the vowel sound in a syllable is represented by a vowel digraph such as the "ow" in "grow," or the "ea" in "teach" and "head," or the "ay" in "clay."

The fifth type is the consonant + "le" syllable in which a syllable, usually at the end of a word, is spelled, for example, "ple," "tle," "ble," "cle," etc. Examples are "purple" (pur-ple), "turtle" (tur-tle), "marble" (mar-ble), and "uncle" (un-cle).

And the sixth and last type is the syllable ending in an r-controlled vowel, such as "or," "ar," "er," "ir," "eer,"  etc. Examples here are "fortune" (for-tune), "farflung" (far-flung), "mercy" (mer-cy), and "cheerful" (cheer-ful).

Confused yet? Don't be. Look at each of the last four types of syllables. Each of them just emphasizes code knowledge, specifically knowledge of the various vowel spellings and what each spelling's viable pronunciation options are.

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Reading Multisyllabic Words

Are you looking for a better way to teach a student to decode longer words? Do some of your students, or maybe your own children, tend to leap to a wild guess when faced with an unfamiliar multisyllabic word? Have you tried the various syllable methods and found they can be both confusing to teach and confusing for the student to implement? If so, I'm not surprised. After all, how many adults today can even list the six syllable types described in most systems of multisyllable decoding, much less explain how to apply that knowledge to reading an unfamiliar word? So, how did they learn to read themselves? Clearly something else is afoot here.

A New, Well-Tested, Strategy for Reading Multisyllabic Words

Some years ago, while working with many struggling readers one-on-one, I developed a different strategy for decoding multisyllabic words and began teaching it to each of my students. Their response was uniformly positive, so positive that most of them quickly abandoned their traditional guessing habit in favor of implementing the OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method

You can find it in two forms. The entire method is available free here on the OnTrack Reading website, including all of the necessary worksheets. Yes, it's free. However, if the child, or even adult, that you're working with is also uncomfortable with accurately reading even one-syllable words and has poor knowledge of phonics generally, then I would recommend the OnTrack Reading Advanced Code Phonics Workbook. The workbook includes the entire OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method, but also covers the English phonics code in depth.

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Extending the Phonogram Set

This Perspectives article discusses how you should teach your child to decide whether he's encountering either a new phonogram in an word, or an unusual pronunciation of an existing phonogram, or just another one of those occasional weird spellings that he has to memorize in that particular word. 

As discussed in an earlier article, one of the attributes of a phonogram marking system should be that "the logic underlying the phonogram set should be easily, and logically, extended to phonograms not included in the set." Another attribute was that the marking system "should accommodate an easy-to-learn method for describing the inevitable exceptions to the underlying logic that are bound to occur in some English words."

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Teaching the OnTrack Reading Phonogram Set

The previous Perspectives article, Modifying the Spalding Phonogram Set, set out eight attributes that a teaching set of English phonograms should possess. Number five was: The order of the phonogram set should enable a child to begin reading before learning the entire phonogram set, if possible.

This article will discuss teaching the phonograms, and how to incorporate writing and reading into the mix. And, although the Spalding phonogram set was criticized in the previous article, a copy Ms. Spalding's book, The Writing Road to Reading, hereafter WRTR, preferably the 4th edition, will prove useful to any parent using the OnTrack Reading Phonogram Set, for reasons that will soon become obvious.

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Modifying the Spalding Phonogram Set

One of the more longstanding phonogram sets is the one devised by Ms. Romalda Spalding in The Writing Road to Reading, first published in 1957 and reprinted in several editions since. Two aspects of her original phonogram set are troublesome today. One problem arises because of changes in pronunciation over the years. The second problem is that the Spalding phonograms are meant to be used only in conjuction with that curriculum set forth in her book. That is, they don't easily stand alone, on their own.

The OnTrack Reading Phonogram Flash Card Set addresses both of those problems, first by adjusting some of the pronunciations to reflect modern-day usages, and second, by adding fifteen additional phonograms and dropping one from her original set of 70 phonograms, resulting in an 84-phonogram set.

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The OnTrack Reading Marking System for Coding Words

This Perspectives article will cover the simple method of marking up words used in both the OnTrack Reading Advanced Code Phonics Workbook, and in the separate OnTrack Reading Homeschooling Method. Only words of one syllable will be discussed in this article.

Note: The marking system is best used with pen and paper. It is difficult to reproduce here on the website without resorting to some fancy tricks with a wordprocessor, converting to a PDF, etc. This will become obvious in the following discussion.

There are just three components of the marking system used in the OnTrack Reading programs, the single-underline for marking digraphs, the numbers 2, 3, and 4 for marking the sound of the phonogram when it is not the first option, and the double underline for marking letters and phonograms that don't correspond to traditional phonograms.

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What is a Sight Word, Really?

The term "sight word" has different meanings depending upon one's philosophy of reading instruction. In today's public schools, though, if your child brings home a list of words with "Sight Words" printed at the top of it, you can bet that the teacher wants your child to memorize every word on the list.

More than likely it's a list of short, high-frequency words, that is, words that appear very often in print. The prime justification for such a list is that a lot of the words cannot be easily decoded by a child. They are considered "phonetically irregular," or "difficult to sound out," or some other similar term. Your child is being told that he has to just learn to say those words quickly, i.e., "on sight," and the technique for learning them is usually by rote memorization, without considering the phonics information contained in the word.

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What are the English Phonemes and Graphemes?

One of the first challenges faced when one sets out to design a phonics program for English or, if a parent, to pick an appropriate phonics program for your child, is to come to grips with terms like grapheme, phoneme, digraph, phonogram, sound, etc. This Perspectives article will attempt to clarify some of the terms used, and perhaps offer some guidance as to what a phonics program should contain. As you will see, there are choices to be made when designing a phonics curriculum.

Phonemes Versus Sounds

I've avoided the word "phoneme" when discussing any of the phonics information here on the OnTrack Reading website, preferring to use the more parent-friendly term "sound" instead. In the various OnTrack Reading materials, reference is made to the 43 sounds of English, but it would be more accurate to say the 43 phonemes, for there are literally hundreds of English sounds, even before you begin to consider the influence of various English dialects. For instance, a linguist will detect a difference between the /k/ sound of "cool" and the /k/ sound of "keep," a difference caused by the vowel sound that follows.

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Using the OnTrack Reading Phonogram Flash Cards

In today's Perspectives article I'll discuss the original purpose of the OnTrack Reading Phonogram Flash Cards plus two other potential uses. The flashcards are available as a PDF from lulu.com. If you purchase the PDF, you will need to print the pages out on your home printer, using card stock, and then cut them into individual cards.

The Intended Use of the Flash Cards

Use them with the OnTrack Reading Homeschooling Program described here on the site.

The OnTrack Reading Homeschooling Program is an adapted version of the exceptional reading and spelling program designed by Ms. Romalda Spalding decades ago and completely presented in her book, The Writing Road to Reading. A large number of homeschoolers, as well as many public schools, have found her program to be invaluable for the initial teaching of reading and spelling. Materials for the Spalding Method, as it is commonly known, are available from various sources if one wants to use the program in its original form.

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Missing the Point About Cursive

I was surprised to learn that 45 states have signed on, or maybe I should say "signed off," on dumping cursive from their elementary education curricula. (See The New Script for Teaching Handwriting is No Script at All, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.)

To Read or Not to Read?

After reading the article, and several of the comments, it seemed to me that everyone involved in the debate is missing a key point. We might not ever be able to convince a majority of young people that they should learn to write in cursive, but surely we should be able to convince them that they should learn to read it.

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Silent-e or Magic-e vs. Split Vowel Digraphs

I learned something this week that might tell us something about the difference between American phonics teaching and British phonics teaching while I was working on one of the pages of my website, Explaining Split Vowel Digraphs.

The British are Coming!

It was already a pretty good entrance page for my site but after I finished the tweaking, traffic began to grow from search engine results, so I was checking it out more closely. To my surprise, about 75% of the people entering the site via that page were coming from England! Apparently the English use the term split digraph much more than we Americans do. Here "Silent-e" and "Magic-e" seem to be preferred.

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Clearing Up b and d Confusion

Perspectives will, from time to time, be used to highlight various pages from the Phonics Program section, the Dyslexia section, or the Homeschooling section of the OnTrack Reading website. The purpose for doing so is two-fold. First, to make readers of this blog aware of that information and, second, to facilitate a discussion about the information or methodology found on those pages.

Today I'd like to draw your attention to Telling b from d, a page which explains the most effective method I have found to address the b and d reversal problem. Furthermore, the method works both ways, that is, whether the child is reading b and d, or writing them.

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Introducing Perspectives, Part 2

Introducing Perspectives, Part 1, discussed the sad condition of phonics instruction in English-speaking countries, especially when compared to instruction in countries where the phonics structure of their languages are relatively straightforward.

For this situation to ever change we will have to learn to recognize that phonics instruction will fail a reasonably large percentage (10 to 20%) of young children because they are dealing with physical issues that make it difficult for them to absorb such instruction. This failure rate is what keeps whole-word curriculum writers in business, thereby ensuring a continuation of the "reading war" that plagued the last century and continues unabated today.

Today's Topic: How Vision Problems Frustrate Phonics Instruction

To be specific, I'm talking about visual skills problems, including binocularity issues like convergence insufficiency. Testing has shown that a surprisingly large percentage of young children suffer from such issues, that percentage being somewhere between 10 and 20%, which just happens to be about the percentage of first graders who will also experience difficulty with phonics instruction. In my experience, this is not coincidence, but cause. A child with poorly developed vision skills will usually have trouble learning to read. That same child will very likely have difficulty absorbing phonics instruction.

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Introducing Perspectives, Part 1

Perspectives, a new addition to the OnTrack Reading website as of 2013, will cover various issues of interest as they arise and will also elaborate on some of the topics covered elsewhere on the site, such as vision therapy and vision skills problems, nutrition, and other issues that could affect a child's readiness to learn to read.

As with the website overall, the main focus of Perspectives will be on how to help the dyslexic child, including investigating ways that dyslexia might be avoided altogether. I hope others will contribute their expertise in areas where I have limited familiarity, such as the various auditory and exercise programs designed to help struggling readers, as well as adding more detailed information on technical topics like vision therapy.

Today's Topic: Some Thoughts on Phonics Instruction

In this introductory Perspectives, I want to focus on the current state of phonics instruction in English-speaking countries. In a word, it's a mess. The reason it's a mess is that the phonic structure of English words is considerably more complex than the phonic structure of words in many other languages, mainly due to the fact that English has drawn words from many of those languages over time.

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