How to Teach Students to Read Multisyllabic Words

Boy reading a book.

Once students are proficient and automatic at reading one-syllable, closed-syllable words it is time to teach them how to read multisyllabic words. While it’s important to ensure that your students are adept at reading the various types of closed syllables such as closed syllables with consonant digraphs, bonus letters, and consonant blends, don’t wait until all six syllable types (open, vce, r-controlled, vowel teams, vowel diphthongs) have been mastered before introducing multisyllabic closed syllable words. Start with teaching students how to read two-syllable words that follow the closed syllable pattern in both syllables.

When should I introduce how to read multisyllabic words?

Students begin to encounter multisyllabic words very early in the primary grades so it’s important to provide them with a strategy for how to read these words. We know that guessing and checking at words is an inefficient strategy that works only a small percentage of time.

As we said, targeted instruction may begin once students can read closed-syllable, single-syllable words accurately and automatically.

What is the best way to begin teaching students to read multisyllabic words?

First, we remind students that every syllable must have at least one vowel.

Then, we remind students that the vowel sound is a ‘push’ of breath’ or syllable. Our mouths open for vowel sounds. We discussed this procedure in our post about suffixes -s, and -es.

Another key component of teaching students how to break apart multisyllabic words is noticing where the vowels are in a word. If there is more than one vowel, and the vowels are not next to each other, then there must be more than one syllable. That means that the word must be chunked into syllables.

What if my students are encountering two-syllable words before they have mastered all the closed syllables?

Even before formal instruction begins, you can help students learn to approach multisyllable words by tapping and blending the first two or three letters at the beginning of the word. This is best done during small group instruction or even during a shared reading session.

Image of two decodable books

Let’s say your students were reading a nonfiction book about rabbits and they had to read the following.

If a rabbit cannot hide, it will run in a zigzag.

Upon encountering the word ‘cannot’, the student might read the word as ‘can’. You can guide your student by saying, “Yes. Can is the first part of the word, but there are more letters. Let’s read the rest of the word.” Then cover up ‘can’ and encourage the student to tap and blend, /n/…/o/…/t/…not. Then encourage the student to read the whole word, can…not, cannot.

Sometimes students will come across a word that they have never seen before, like ‘zigzag’. They might just look at the first letter and blurt out the first word they can think of that starts with z. Zip, for instance.

Think of this as a teachable moment. You might say, “Yes. It starts with the same letter as zip, but this word is longer than the word zip. Let’s break this word into parts and read it in parts.” Cover up the second syllable and encourage the student to tap and blend, /z/…/i/…/g/…zig. Then do the same with the second syllable, /z/…/a/…/g/…zag. Then say, “Great! Now let’s put those two parts together, zig…zag…What word do you have?” Finally, ask the student to reread the sentence. This helps students develop fluency and comprehension.

How do I teach my students to read multisyllabic words?

The use of syllable cards is a helpful tool to approach reading words in syllables.

We like to begin with a warm-up of the syllable types called, ‘Get on the Grid’. Students are given a variety of syllables and are asked to sort it onto a syllable grid, while explaining why the syllable belongs in a particular spot.

If students are unfamiliar with a particular syllable type, we use this game as an opportunity teach. Because this game is a warm-up prior to word study instruction, students get repeated exposure to all of the syllable types and soon become familiar with them.

Image of a syllable grid with syllable sorted on the grid.

Then students combine the syllables into words. Sometimes the word they create isn’t a real word – but that’s ok, because this gives them a fun way to read nonsense words correctly.

They rearrange the syllables until all the real words have been created. Students then practice reading the real words.

What is the Rabbit Rule and why should I start with this rule?

The word rabbit contains two consonants in between two vowels. Rabbit Rule words have two consonants in between the two short vowels. They follow a vc/cvc (two closed syllables).

If you are following a phonics scope and sequence, it is likely that the closed syllable is the syllable type with which most students are familiar. It’s best to begin with what students know and add on from there.

This is the procedure that we use when introducing the Rabbit Rule.

  • Show a word, such as ‘rabbit’ on the white board or under a document camera.
  • Remind the students that each syllable must have at least one vowel.
  • Ask the students to identify the vowels and put a dot above the vowels.
  • Ask the students if the vowels are next to each other.
  • Since the vowels are not next to each other, that means that because there are two vowels there must be two syllables.
  • Tell the students to look between the vowels and ask how many consonants.
  • Because there are two consonants we divide the word between the consonants.
  • Now we read each syllable, rab…bit.

It is important to provide your students with lots of practice reading and spelling these words in isolation so they a capable of applying this knowledge when reading connected text.

How do I teach the schwa?

Soon after you begin teaching how to read two-syllable words, students will encounter the schwa. You have to provide them with an explanation and a strategy for reading words with schwa.

Here’s what students need to know:

  • The schwa is when the vowel does not make its expected sound.
  • It occurs in the unaccented syllable. (A fun way to ‘hear’ where the unaccented syllable is by calling the word home for dinner. Jan…et, but…on, etc. Humming the word is also effective.
  • The schwa most often sounds like short i or short u.

Where can I find resources to teach this strategy effectively?

Many of our struggling readers needed explicit instruction in reading multisyllabic words. We created this student-friendly resource and have used it for years with lots of success. Our students love the warm-up ‘Get on the Grid’ game and the challenge of building words with the syllables. The wordlists and spelling routines help our students read and spell with accuracy. This resource comes with a pre and posttest to help you determine your students’ level of mastery. Rabbit Rule Book 1 covers closed syllable/closed syllable words as well as closed syllable/VCe words.

Our Rabbit Rule 2 resource helps students read words that have r-controlled and final y syllables. It includes words like ‘funny’ and murmur. The vowels follow a different phonics pattern but are separated by two consonants.

Looking for timely helpful hints with a sprinkling of humor?

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