Reading Multisyllable Words

Helping Students Learn How to Handle Multisyllable Words


Multisyllable Words - General Information

The multisyllable words are harder to read than short words. To read multisyllable words the student needs to apply a more advanced strategy. Some students automatically develop the proper strategies for reading multisyllable words but many do not and struggle with these longer words. Direct instruction and guided practice helps the student learn how to handle these ‘long’ words. The majority of English words are multisyllable so it is critical to read them effectively.

Syllables are simply the hunks of sound within a spoken word that are said with a single puff of air.  Every syllable has at least one vowel sound with or without the surrounding consonant sounds. Multisyllable words are made up of a combination of these distinct sound hunks. In these multisyllable words it is impossible to combine all the sounds together in one puff. To read multisyllable words the student has to not only process the print phonetically but he needs to learn how to distinguish and group the appropriate sounds together to form the correct syllables and then smoothly combine these correct sound hunks with all the adjacent syllables into one fluid word.  The student needs to capture all the appropriate sound hunks in the word without missing one or without adding one that should not be there. The syllables need to be smoothly and quickly joined into one fluid word that is accented and pronounced correctly. Reading multisyllable words is a more complex process and absolutely takes practice.

Students benefit from direct instruction and practice in this complex skill of handling multisyllable words. The instruction described below is effective with students who have already established correct phonologic processing. If the student is not able to decode words applying correct phonologic processing they will first need to establish this necessary foundation for proficient reading. Please see Overview and Visual Representation of the Process of Proficient Reading

This article overviews strategies to develop skills in handling multisyllable words. Activities are designed to help the student learn how to break words down into appropriate syllables, pay attention to detail, pick up all sounds and smoothly blend sound hunks. Students should practice common patterns, including the most frequently encountered affixes.  Direct guided instruction in handling multisyllable words helps the student develop necessary skills.

Explain to the Student:

· We will learn and practice techniques for reading longer multisyllable words.

· Syllables are hunks of sound within a word that we say in a single puff of air. ***If the student does not yet understand syllables, you MUST spend time with some oral exercises where the student says longer words and learns to hear and orally break the word into syllables. Make sure the student can orally distinguish syllables.

· To handle reading these “long” words you need to learn how to distinguish, or “see”, the appropriate syllables or sound chunks within a word and then rapidly capture all sounds and smoothly put these sound chunks together. It is a more advanced skill than simply knowing and blending the individual sounds of single syllable words together. You need to combine the sounds into appropriate ‘hunks’, capture all these syllables which usually do not have a meaning on their own and join them rapidly and smoothly with the adjacent syllables to form the word. It is almost like reading 3, 4 or more separate nonsense words and smoothly combining them into one fluid word. Plus to top it off, you need to get the correct pronunciation and accent.  This direct practice will help you learn how to easily handle these longer words.


Activities for Developing Skills in Reading Multisyllable Words:

Reading Multisyllable Words:

Have the student practice reading lists of multisyllable words or text containing multisyllable words. This needs to be guided reading with correction/feedback.  As the student reads the words to you, have your pencil ready. If the student has problems with breaking words into appropriate syllables help the student by placing little light pencil mark slashes in the appropriate syllable breaks so he can better ‘see’ the syllables. For example:

inconsistent  à   add the light pencil marks to indicate àin/con/sis/tent

combination à  add the light pencil slashes to indicate à com/bi/na/tion

protective à à  add the light pencil slashes to indicate à pro/tec/tive

This light pencil slash through the appropriate breaks and maybe a comment such as ‘take another look’ helps the student learn how to break words. Before long the student begins to ‘see’ the appropriate breaks on his own. Remember to only make the slash marks when the student needs help. The slash marks help the student learn how to handle these longer words.

Once again, as with all guided reading, make sure the student reads each word accurately. Often when students tackle multisyllable words they leave out parts, add sounds that are not there or change sounds. Stop any of these errors and have the student take another look. Make immediate corrections for any error. The correction technique of tapping the pencil on the word to signal ‘stop and look again’ is often all that is necessary. Correction is critical to developing the attention to detail and ability to pick up all sounds within a multisyllable word that is important to accurate fluent reading.  Remember to help the student by making slash marks when needed. Direct instruction with correction helps the student learn how to capture all the hunks and smoothly combine them into a fluid word.

In addition, you may need to help the student with pronunciation. With multisyllable words placing the accent on the correct syllable adds another level of complexity to correctly pronouncing the word. Not only does the student need to accurately sound out the word but they need to accent it correctly. If the word is familiar to the student, they usually ‘get’ the correct accenting and pronunciation. If the word is unfamiliar you may need to provide the correct pronunciation. Help the student with correct pronunciation whenever they need assistance.  With improper pronunciation, you can just say something similar to “Close, but we actually pronounce the word this way _____” . Then make sure the student re-reads the word pronouncing it correctly. This correct pronunciation is part of the ‘fluent’ neural model of the word so by all means help the student learn and practice correct pronunciation of new vocabulary.

When distinguishing appropriate syllable breaks for reading instruction, base the split on the sound structure of the word. In other words base ‘sound hunks’ on how you say the word. This is NOT necessarily the official dictionary syllable splits. For example, in the word “effect” the split based on how we say the word is e-fect not the ef-fect official dictionary split. Don’t get too picky about where the word is exactly split. Base it on sound! Sometimes we say words differently. (i.e. for puppy you can say either pup-ee or pup-pee…either split is fine for handling the multisyllable reading of the word). This is not learning the rules and making the official correct written syllable splits found in a dictionary but rather hearing and handling sound hunks within a word for reading. 

Writing /Spelling Words:

The student writes/spells multisyllable words. Printing orally presented multisyllable words effectively helps students learn how to tackle and proficiently read multisyllable words. Not only does printing words phonetically by syllable directly establish and develop necessary phonologic processing but it also builds understanding of the syllable structure of words. The student learns how long words break apart into smaller sound ‘chunks’ and gains knowledge of common patterns and affixes. Writing spoken multisyllable words by syllable directly strengthens the converse skill of breaking words into appropriate syllables for reading.

Select some multisyllable words and read the words out-loud to the student. Have the student write the word by syllable as they say the sound hunk or syllable. In the beginning, they can leave a small gap between the syllables to help them ‘see’ the syllable splits. The word writing should be given to the student with specific affix or spelling patterns grouped together to help him learn and recognize common patterns in our language. 

The word writing activity is an exercise in handling and processing multisyllable words NOT a spelling test. However, you do not want a student to practice spelling a word incorrectly. Help the student learn the correct spelling patterns. Help the student build skills by grouping common patterns and providing direction. Help teach correct spelling by saying “these next words are going to use the ___spelling for the ___ sound”.  As they write, help with spelling hints such as the /ow/ sound in this word is spelled with “ou”, or  “in this word the /s/ sound is spelled with  ‘c’” .  If you give a word with a ‘tricky’ spelling, teach the ‘unexpected’ portion so the student learns correctly. The following are some examples of spelling/word writing lists designed to help the student develop skills:

List 1: “These words have the -ment ending (remind the student that the e in ment sounds like an i but we spell it -ment)” and give…. placement, pavement, statement, refreshment, adjustment, equipment, banishment, enjoyment, employment, enrichment

List 2: “These words all start with the re- prefix” and give him…….renew, replace, return, recheck, review, repay, refill, reflect, reprint, revisit, rewind, remind, restore

List 3:  “These words have the -able ending” and give him…..washable, bendable, moveable, readable, fixable, comfortable, agreeable, mixable, breakable, employable, changeable, punishable, questionable (don’t mix -ible endings in the list when the student is practicing the -able ending)

List 4: “These words all start with the dis- prefix” and give him …, display, discharge, disturb, discredit, disrespect, dispatch, distrust,  disband, disagree, discount (if the student spells dispatch incorrectly with ‘ch’ instead of ‘tch’ give a reminder of the correct ‘tch’ spelling pattern).

List 5:  “These words have the ‘tion’ spelling for the /shun/ ending” and give him…. nation, station, action, injection, tradition, rejection, motion, creation, lotion, migration, reflection, direction, formation (don’t mix in words such as confession with the -sion endings on this word writing list)

Remember fluency is built by practice. If a specific word is difficult for the student, have them write that word several times saying the sounds as they print the word. This repetition of correct phonologic processing in ‘word writing’ is an excellent tool for developing fluency on a specific word.



Direct practice with multisyllable words can be conducted with Guided Reading or with direct structured lessons. Guided reading is highly effective with individual instruction (such as parent reading with their child at home). The structured lessons are helpful when teaching a group or class as instruction can be better organized. (Example practicing a list with a particular prefix or suffix together with an overhead presentation). Structured lessons are also beneficial in remediation situations and with students who are facing difficulty learning this advanced skill of handling multisyllable words. Structured lessons help  students learn as they allow systematic skill development (example begin practice with 2 syllable words, then 3 syllable words, then lists with 4 syllable words).  Expected patterns of the common affixes are also efficiently taught and effectively learned using pre-planned lessons/word lists.  


Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons  contains an entire section with lessons on handling multisyllable words. It provides reading lists of multisyllable words including direct practice with lists containing common prefixes and suffixes.  For a preview see Reading Lesson 69 and Lesson 71 .


Additional free information on teaching students to read is located at Reading Information and Information & Resources for Teaching Reading pages of the Right Track Reading website. 


This article was written by Miscese Gagen a mother with a passion for teaching children to read proficiently by using effective methods. She is also a successful reading tutor and author of the reading instructional programs Right Track Reading Lessons and Back on the Right Track Reading Lessons. The purpose of this article is to empower parents and teachers with information on teaching children how to read. We CAN improve reading proficiency, one student at a time!  More information is located at ~ Copyright 2007-2008 Miscese R. Gagen