Teaching Decoding of Multisyllabic Words

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

As children grow into more sophisticated readers, your decoding lessons will increasingly involve words with multiple syllables. This lesson gives you some strategies for helping children do this tricky work.

Why Multisyllabic Words Matter

When children initially learn to decode, or sound out the words on a page, they are primarily working with short words that have just one syllable. However, as children become more sophisticated readers, they will read more multisyllabic words, words that have two or more syllables and, as a result, can be more difficult to read. The ability to read multisyllabic words is an important tool that helps children read increasingly more complex and interesting texts. It also allows them to develop their vocabulary. Some children can transition naturally from reading one-syllable words to reading multisyllabic ones; however, many children need some explicit instruction to help them take this step.


One of the best ways to help students read multisyllabic words is to teach them about chunking, or breaking down longer words into smaller, more readable chunks. The first step for chunking is to teach children what a syllable is.

You can tell your students that when they say a word, they might just open their mouth once, as in 'cat,' or they might open and shut their mouths multiple times, as in 'cabinet.' Usually, the mouth shutting or tongue touching signifies the beginning of a new syllable. Teach your students to clap out syllables in words, with one clap for each syllable. Practice this as a class during shared readings as often as possible.

Once students have the hang of breaking down words, you can incorporate this into their reading practice, as they can work on words one small chunk at a time. For instance, if they see the word 'teacher,' they might feel overwhelmed. Have them put their hand over the 'er' and read the simpler word, 'teach.' Then, have them cover the 'teach' and read 'er.' Finally, show them they can blend these syllables together. The more opportunities students have to chunk multisyllabic words, the more adept they will become.

Roots, Prefixes and Suffixes

You can also help students to get better at decoding multisyllabic words if you teach them explicitly that many of these words contain roots, prefixes and suffixes. The root is the part of the word that carries the most meaning and forms the basis of the word. The prefix comes prior to the root and modifies its meaning, and the suffix comes after the word and modifies its meaning.

For instance, in the word 'retaking,' the root is 'take,' even though the 'e' has come off of the end of it. The prefix is 're,' meaning to take again. The suffix is 'ing,' signifying that it is happening right now. Children become better at reading multisyllabic words when they are familiar with many different commonly used prefixes and suffixes and thus able to read them without thinking too hard. It is also helpful to teach students to separate the root from the prefix and suffix so that they can read it more simply.

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