Four Advances in Teaching Multisyllable Sight Words

Readers who easily read on sight, or map, multisyllabic words excel at solving word puzzles by pulling together clues embedded in the spelling, pronunciation and meaning of words. Struggling readers quickly learn how to play this language game - if all three sources of information are developed together.

Many seven-to-17-year-old students struggle to transform decoding skills into fluent reading, or orthographic mapping, of multisyllabic words, on sight. Words with multiple syllables, and morphemes (meaningful parts) or with irregular spellings constitute 65% of newly encountered words in text that eight-year-olds confront, greatly limiting their fluency and comprehension. For 12-year-old readers the number rises to 85%, while encountering 10,000 or more multisyllabic words in a year. Methods based on the recent work of Linnea Ehri, and others, including Drs. Berninger, Kilpatrick, Austin, Gray, and Wolf offer a higher level of instruction to overcome this barriers.
There is agreement that reading longer words on sight requires recognizing larger sound and spelling patterns in words, especially onset-rime sequences (sl-eep), syllables, and morphemes. This is the difference between /i/ /n/ /s/ /ie/ /d/ and in-side. This reduces memory load, improving fluency and comprehension. At about eight years of age children’s brains develop the ability to handle these larger chunks of language. To best support this growth these researchers
suggest shifting instruction to:

Integrated Multicomponent Instruction where the three essential elements of fluent multisyllabic word reading are developed in a synchronized manner, building the connections between Phonemic, Orthographic and Morphological abilities, or POM. This is much simpler and more effective than teaching these as separate parts.
“…the mapping of words’ meaning, sound and spelling structures results in accurate, automatic reading of individual words, the hallmark of skilled reading. Sight word reading develops through phases of increasing awareness of
linguistic connections within words.” Linnea Ehri and Colleagues (2018)

Orthographic and Phoneme Automaticity – Integrated POM instruction transforms decoding skills into the ability to effortlessly read words with sound and spelling sequences as similar as traditional, transitional, and transmissible. Automaticity allows longer words to be instantly recognized and retrieved directly from our minds’ special sight word memory – which you are using right now!
The more a student learns about the words they encounter and how words function in sentences, the more fluent they become and the better they comprehend these words across context.” Maryanne Wolf and colleagues (2022)

Meta-linguistic Flexibility - as the POM abilities fuse together and become automatic the hundreds of different letters sequences, syllables, morphemes, and onset-rime patterns that compose multisyllabic words are flexibly combined into new sight words. This language ability operates silently in all proficient readers’ minds, allowing us to play with longer sound, spelling and meaning patterns to construct thousands of novel words when first encountered in text.
“Phonics provides a basic set of linguistic Lego™ pieces with explicit step-by-step instructions. POM builds on this essential ability by intrinsically showing readers how to turn a large variety of complex linguistic blocks into an almost endless array of eaningful sight words, without instructions.”
Bruce Howlett (in press)

Active Analysis in Meaningful Context – Meta-linguistic abilities are strengthened when newly encountered words are actively analyzed and recognized in a meaningful context. Otherwise, dozens, if not scores, of repetitions are required to store words in sight word memory.
Poor ability to analyze connections between words’ spellings, meanings, and pronunciations obstructs fluent word level reading. Low quality (word) representations (in memory) subsequently impede reading comprehension…” Linnea Ehri and Colleagues (2018)

These four shifts may seem complicated, but they actually simplify instruction. Integrated multicomponent instruction combined with orthographic and phoneme proficiency build the sound, spelling and morphological structure of words at the same time, so they reinforce each other. This is far easier than teaching POM as separate parts. Active analysis and meta-linguistic flexibility enable students to read complex words independently, increasing their sight word vocabularies as they read more extensively.

Two groups have translated these four advances into classroom ready lessons. Learning By Design’s Spell Links Word Study provides multicomponent and meta-linguistic lessons for the primary grades.

Our effort, Sparking the Reading Shift (STARS), provides two integrated POM interventions that spark the shift from decoding to fluent orthographic mapping. STARS – Complete Program is a 16-lesson intervention for readers who have long struggled with decoding and fluency. The 10-lesson, abbreviated version, STARS – Multisyllable Word Sequencing, is for readers whose literacy struggles only arose when confronting longer, complex words. Both interventions are designed to strengthen, not replace, your existing literacy methods.

Sparking the Reading Shift employs learning principles from the cognitive sciences that focus attention and strengthen word analysis abilities. Sight word memory is enhanced through spaced retrieval practice, minimizing learn-and-forget cycles. A variety of brief activities keep students focused and engaged, limiting repetition.

Each page is a ready-to-use activity, that includes brief instructions and a word challenge that students must first answer verbally, then in writing – fusing spoken and written words, the key to fluency. Novice teachers and parents successfully teach both versions of STARS after reading only 20 minutes of instructions. See examples of the activities and the simple instructions below.

Both versions of Sparking the Reading Shift benefit students regardless of their existing decoding or fluency abilities. They are available for sale in print or for immediate download (PDF). STARS is continually improved as innovative research emerges with updates provided to all users as PDF versions at no charge. Advanced literacy instruction – without stress.

We are working on Sparking the Fluency Shift - bridging the gap between foundational instruction and text reading using short stories arranged by Lexile Level. Each story is preceded by rehearsal activities that build rate, automaticity and prosody with key words, phrases and sentences. Sign up for the newsletter below for more information.

  • Sparking the Reading Shift doesn't look like most interventions as the activities are designed to develop POM and meta-linguistic flexibility in an active learning manner. The teacher provides a verbal prompt which the student attentively answers, first orally and then in writing – fusing spoken and written language. This method also emphasizes memory retrieval, leading to greater retention while limiting repetition. For questions or a sample lesson email

  • Minimal Contrast Word Analysis

    This activity draws a reader’s attention to the fine details in words that are similar in spelling and pronunciation.
    Students listen to an verbal prompt asking them to identify the sound / spelling in one of a pair of similar words: “Circle the letters that makes the /ai/ in brain. Next, circle the /o/ in stomp. 3— the letters that make the /ai/ in stain.”

  • Phoneme Substitution

    Dr. David Kilpatrick has shown that this activity is a proven way of developing phoneme proficiency — a critical element in sight word memorization. Student manipulates the sounds and spellings of word chains.
    Verbal prompt: “This is crown. What word do you get if you change the /k/ to a /b/? Always say it and then write it. Now change the /ow/ to an /ai/. 3. Now change the /n/ in brain to a /l/….”

  • Mapping Irregular Words

    All English words, including irregular words, can be directly mapped to their spoken form. This requires identifying the phonemic pattern and then connecting it to spelling. Verbal prompt: "Spell was just the way it sounds. Now spell was using the letter choices to help you. Then I’ll show you the correct spelling to copy. Finally, spell the word backwards.”

  • Onset-Rime Backwards Reading

    Proficient readers develop the ability to recognize larger chunks of spellings and morphemes, like Legos™ into many thousands of sight words. Onset-Rime pattern recognition provide practice with important chunks of longer words.
    Verbal Prompt: “Read down each column two or three times until the words sound like you are speaking”

  • Code Flexibility

    This activity is similar to Set for Variability practice. Readers learn to play with irregular and code variations to arrive at proper pronunciations. This aids decoding and fluency.
    Verbal prompt: “Say each sound, then read the whole word. If you want, I’ll do it first. We’ll practice with one set until you can read the words smoothly.”

  • Developing Morphological Awareness

    This activity helps students map the meaningful parts of words, morphemes, in multisyllable words, an ability as important to reading as phonics.
    Verbal prompt: “As I slowly say each word circle each morpheme, which is the smallest unit of meaning. Then read down the center column smoothly twice. Finally, write each word and explain its meaning.”

  • Manipulating Morphemes

    This activity shows readers how the meaningful parts of words can be manipulated to build new words.
    Verbal Prompt: This is ‘ject”. It generally means to throw. What word would you make if you added ‘ob” to it? What do you think the word means? Say it and then write it. What if you added ‘re’ to ‘ject’? Meaning? How about ‘pro’? Now add ‘e’ to ject,”….“How about ‘ward’? What if you added ‘west’ to it? Meaning?...”

  • Multisyllable Word Sequencing

    Syllables are parts of words defined by their sound pattern. Hearing the boundaries between syllables and sequencing them promotes fluent multisyllable word reading.
    Verbal Prompt: “#1 is ‘advertisement’. The syllables are out of order. First, circle the vowel in each syllable and then put the syllables in order as you say them. Next, do the same for ‘disagreement’, disagreement. Next is ‘experience, experience.

  • Multisyllable Word Mapping

    Exposure to common syllables and their spellings helps readers recognize these chunks in newly encountered words. Each word contains one or more of the three syllables listed in the table to the left.
    Verbal Prompt: “First, circle over in as many words as you can. Next, circle act. Now find and circle flow. Say each syllable as you circle it. Finally, read the word out loud and then write it.”

  • Flexible Pattern Shifting

    This activity builds fluency with the constantly changing sound and spelling patterns of English. Proficient readers are able to pick up and generalize these patterns, allowing them to read unfamiliar words with ease.
    Verbal Prompt: Read down each column until you can read the words smoothly. The righthand column are “nonsense” words to help you read new words with ease.

  • Morphemes in Context

    Actively recognizing morphemes and their variations in context solidifies words in sight word memory. The reader identifies morphemes in the paragraph by reading - with help, if needed - and marking the word.

  • Bruce Howlett applies his long experience in biological research at Cornell University when developing innovative instruction for his special education students. For over 30 years, Bruce has worked with literacy researchers, speech therapists, and reading teachers to create innovative instruction for long-struggling readers. Sparking the Reading Shift is his fifth project.
    Bruce believes in the power of innovative methods as his own difficulties with reading fluency, spelling and listening dissipated when, at the age of 40, he began working with a speech therapist on phonemic awareness lessons for their mutual students.
    Bruce is currently working on Sparking the Fluency Shift which combines 15 rehearsal activities that allow the student to practice challenging words and phrases before reading short stories that are arranged by Lexile Level.
    Follow on Facebook - or Twitter - @ReadingShift